The Liberals' latest university reform: one more attack on students
The Liberals' latest university reform: one more attack on students

Students already forced to contend with online learning, teaching staff cuts, and the loss in many cases of their own jobs, are now being threatened with the cancellation of government support for their university places if they struggle academically.

Under Liberal education minister Dan Tehan’s proposal, those who fail half of their subjects in their first year of a university course will either have to abandon the course, switch degrees, or pay full fees, the latter being impossible for most students, even before Tehan’s June announcement of massive fee hikes for many courses.

As any student will tell you, it is not uncommon to have a semester that is a write-off due to factors beyond your control. Whether it’s having to work long hours while studying in order to make ends meet, or being forced to enrol full time in order to access the pittance that is Youth Allowance when a part time load would be more appropriate, study often suffers because of the lack of adequate financial support for students. Added to this are the extensive pandemic-related job-losses, high rents and low wages that students are subject to. These students will be faced with being booted out of university unless they have rich parents who are willing to fund them to finish their degrees.

Tehan argues that this is for students’ own good, as it will stop them accruing large debts for unsuccessful study. But it’s hard to take those concerns seriously, coming from the guy who plans to more than double the debt burden for arts students from next year. If he wanted to reduce unecessary student debt, he could start with reversing these attacks.

The university system functions primarily to serve the needs of industry, by churning out graduates with skills that are required by businesses. The Liberals have used the COVID-19 crisis to force univerisities further down this road, by increasing the cost to students of courses deemed undesirable by industry.

Penalising students who are at risk of not graduating on time or who are struggling with their studies is part of the same process of cutting all possible fat out of the education system and producing a leaner, meaner, neoliberal machine. And a performance-based funding model is part of the long-term Liberal dream of a fully individualised market system with more up-front fee payers.

The obvious solution to student debt is to cancel it, and stop creating more. Education should be provided by the government, funded through taxes on the corporations that benefit from the skilled workforce universities provide. Students should also be supported during their time at university – both academically and financially – so that they can make the most of their education and so that poor students aren’t disadvantaged as they are in the current system. But while these solutions might be obvious, they won’t be a reality because the run counter to the logic of profit-obsessed capitalism.

To defend ourselves against these attacks, and to push for more funding and better student welfare, we’ll need an uncompromising campaign against the Liberals’ attacks as well as the attacks on students carried out by university administrations at the local level. We’ll need campus student unions and the National Union of Students to adopt an activist orientation, and to commit to mobilising as many students as possible in defence of their rights. We’ll need a combative political strategy, as hostile to the Liberals and bosses as they are to us. The first small step in this direction is the national student protest against Tehan’s reforms on 28 August. Details can be found here

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