Why we are fighting for free education

20 February 2017
April Holcombe

Higher education in Australia has never been in worse shape. Government funding is low by OECD standards, class sizes have ballooned and Centrelink payments are 50 percent below the poverty line. International students pay upfront fees of tens of thousands of dollars and often work for less than the minimum wage, showing the ruthless profit making logic of education policy.

Higher education is Australia’s third largest export, after coal and iron ore. But any amount of profit is never enough. They always want more.

The Liberals want a further $3 billion funding cut to universities, which are “restructuring” their degrees to maximise profits. Courses are being abolished, staff sacked en masse and fees rising. The University of Newcastle has increased profits 50 percent by cramming degrees into two years. This “trimester” model is sweeping universities around the country, and it’s a disaster for everyone but the university bosses. As the price of education increases, it falls more and more on the shoulders of individual students, who have to pay back their debt sooner.

And while the cost of living rises every year, the Liberals want to push under-25s off Newstart and on to Youth Allowance, another $100 less a fortnight. How long until Centrelink is just a long queue of people waiting to be handed their daily packet of sultanas?

The education-for-profit system is rapidly taking us towards the US model of education. The Liberal government made it clear in 2014, when it tried to fully deregulate university fees, how much it loves the US model. Deregulation would set the stage for a highly stratified, class system of education, in which the elite institutions become the Harvards and Yales of Australia, playgrounds for the ruling class. The rest of us would be funnelled into shoddy private colleges that don’t give students the qualifications they need, but just take their money.

Make education free again

We’re told that Australia can’t afford free university education. But there’s no stopping military spending, which is projected to rise to $59 billion per year in 2025-26, from about $32 billion this year. Free education is unrealistic only in a world in which the priorities are totally skewed.

With a large, organised and determined student movement around the country, we can eradicate the system of student poverty and debt. We need to organise ourselves and take to the streets. The Labor Party has committed as many crimes against students as the Liberals: abolishing free education the first time we had it, sabotaging strong student unions that can resist the profit motive and cutting welfare payments.

We need to be independent of any political party that is committed to capitalism, and independent of the parliament that is filled with such parties.

Protests unite the oppressed and exploited. The government counts on us being isolated and powerless when it announces welfare and education cuts. But there is nothing inevitable about putting profits first, as long as we jump onto the political stage and resist. The revival of student protest under former PM Tony Abbott created the political pressure to block fee deregulation every time his government tried to pass it. In countries such as Germany and Chile, such campaigns, sustained over a longer time, have won what we are told is so unrealistic: free tertiary education.

We have a long way to go, and the start will be stopping the calamity of Americanisation. But we have to start somewhere. And if students in the US can rally for free education in the belly of world capitalism, we can surely make the same demand somewhere near world capitalism’s elbow.

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