Students are under attack in Australia. Fee deregulation has been put back on the table by the Turnbull government. Campuses are being “restructured” – a euphemism for large staff and course cuts.
These are the latest in a series of neoliberal measures that have been forced on students since free education was abolished almost 30 years ago.
Today, students are expected to take on part time work in order to be full time students or to survive on Youth Allowance, which pays as little as $20 a day. On campus, class sizes are ever increasing and staff are constantly being fired, reducing the quality of education as the cost of it increases. And as education costs rise, more students will be saddled with debt for much of their working lives.
The government is committed to reducing funding to higher education and turning the system even more into a profit-making machine, modelled on the system in the US. Education minister Simon Birmingham is pushing through a 20 percent funding cut to universities and has recommitted the government to fee deregulation.
University vice-chancellors are committed to the same agenda. They want to move classes online and reduce face to face education, rush students through courses by introducing trimesters and cut course content deemed unnecessary (gender and queer studies, for example).
The higher education industry is one of the best performing in the Australian economy and is Australia’s third largest export. But the government and university administrations won’t stop. They want to squeeze as much profit as possible out of students and staff.
An omnibus bill, the measures of which add $6.3 billion to the government’s budget bottom line, was passed at the end of the year. It included measures that will result in graduates paying back their debt sooner. Also, twice-yearly start-up scholarships have been scrapped for those receiving Centrelink payments; students will have to apply for a tax-free loan instead.
Not content with cutting support for welfare recipients, the government introduced an automated debt recovery system that resulted in thousands of fraudulent Centrelink debt notices being sent to students. These debt letters also target Newstart recipients, the disabled and pensioners, and will rip $4 billion from our pockets over the next five years.
In 2014, the Liberals tried to force students into $100,000 degrees. But, organised by the National Union of Students, students fought back in our thousands all around the country. We forced the government onto the back foot, and deregulation was beaten twice.
The Liberals are back for another round, and students need to get back into the ring. This year, the National Union of Students is organising a protest campaign to stop deregulation and trimesters and to demand that education be free again. The only way we will ultimately stop the neoliberal offensive is to demand that education be treated as a right, not a business.
We know that the money for education is there. It’s there in the $8.4 billion of tax avoidance and reduction by the 200 largest companies in Australia, in the subsidies the government gives to mining companies and in the exorbitant expense accounts of politicians.
We will be marching in every major city on 22 March, and in Perth on 29 March. Every student should be there.
Anneke Demanuele is the National Union of Students education officer