Government goes Grinch on higher education

Even Christmas couldn’t keep the Liberals from attacking higher education. In the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the government announced $2.2 billion in university funding cuts over the next two years.

The cuts will take the form of a freeze in Commonwealth grants for teaching and learning. This will reduce the number of Commonwealth supported places available for students.

The Liberals argue that this is about ending the “demand-driven system” of university funding introduced by the Gillard Labor government. This system uncapped the number of university places available, enabling institutions to enrol as many students as they wanted, and incentivising them to do so by linking government subsidies to total enrolments.

This did not benefit students. For quality, accessible university education, we need a substantial increase in base funding to universities. Under the ALP, base funding was never increased to match increased student numbers – in fact, before being voted out of office, the Gillard government proposed cuts on the scale that the Liberals are now trying to implement.

The increasingly stretched higher education system laid the basis for the Liberals to propose massive increases to student fees to fill the funding gap created by governments. This is the inevitable trajectory of all “demand-driven” systems, which link “service provision” to a capitalist market.

The Liberals’ cuts will be disastrous for students who rely on Commonwealth supported places. Student debt has quadrupled in the last 20 years and is already predicted to rise further. These cuts will only increase the level of debt.

On top of this, the Liberals are not proposing to better regulate higher education. Their plan is the opposite – by continually lowering government funding, they intend to lay the basis to completely deregulate university fees, allowing campus administrations to charge whatever they want for a degree.

This agenda remains deeply unpopular. But this funding freeze does not have to pass through the Senate.

On top of the cuts, the government still wants to lower the HECS repayment threshold. It aims to force students to repay their debt once they earn $45,000 a year, the equivalent of a full time worker making $21.60 an hour. It also proposes to cap the total amount that the government will pay to subsidise individual degrees.

That the Liberals would try to sneak such a vast swathe of attacks through while everyone’s getting ready for summer holidays says a lot about what a bunch of sour, greedy miscreants they are. It also demonstrates that higher education continues to be a key target of fiscal “savings”.

That deregulation has largely been averted is thanks to serious student protests over the past five years.

The Labor Party initially proposed the cuts that the government is trying to implement, but has since backed away from them due to popular opposition. Tony Abbott’s push to introduce fee deregulation in 2014 was thwarted by thousands of students protesting around the country.

We will need to work to build such protests again if we’re to see off the latest round of attacks. The National Union of Students just had its national conference, planning and organising campaigns for the year to come. The left in the union moved and passed policies endorsing a protest campaign against the government, and building towards free education, with the first National Day of Action scheduled for 21 March.

These campaigns will have to confront attacks on multiple fronts. Across Australia, students are facing university administrations determined to cut courses, fire staff and restructure education in the name of profitability.

University vice-chancellors have been some of the most outspoken supporters of increased fees and corporatising university programs. These tycoons of higher education are no less obsessed with their bottom lines than the likes of Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch. Taking them on will be an important priority for those fighting for students’ rights in 2018.

We also need to fight for a vision of education that goes beyond the profit-driven confines of capitalism. In Australia, we can afford free, quality education and an improved student welfare system. The government is still trying to pass $65 billion in corporate tax cuts, while every year tens of billions are spent on mining subsidies, refugee detention, military expenditure and surveillance. Even a fraction of this money redirected towards education would allow everyone who wanted to attend university to do so.

Student unions have led struggles to transform education from a privilege into a basic right. With a Liberal government on the warpath, and vice-chancellors around the country determined to bleed us dry, 2018 will be an important year to get organised and raise our voices again.

The first National Day Of Action for higher education will take place on March 21, 2018. Event: