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Issue #1614      October 16, 2013

Cat out of the bag on education

Education Minister Christopher Pyne let the cat out of the bag last month regarding PM Abbott’s plans to abolish compulsory service and amenity fees at universities. He was quickly told to pull his head in when the Prime Minister copped flack from the National Party. As a result, Ministers are now required to get authorisation from the PM’s office before making press statements.

The former Howard Coalition government had abolished compulsory student union fees, arguing that not all students support the politics of student unions. The impression given was that the fees were just used for political activity.

These funds were managed by student-elected councils. They were used by student unions to provide important support services to students including childcare, counselling and other student needs, meals, clubs and societies, cultural and sporting activities. They were an important part of campus life.

At the time Liberal Senator Barnaby Joyce crossed the floor, enraged over the impact it would have on sport in regional and rural areas where university teams played an important role. It took so-called Family First Senator Steve Fielding’s support to get the ban through the Senate.

When the fees were made voluntary by the Howard government, the impact was quite dramatic. For example, the University of Technology, Sydney, reported a drop in income for student services from $6.2 million a year to $190,000. The university contributed another $500,000 from its operating budget. Like other universities they were concerned about the impact on students. The UTS was not the only university to divert funding from already under-resourced courses to ensure some services continued.

The impact on already struggling lower income students was serious. The children of the rich were not affected; they could afford higher prices that followed when subsidies were reduced.

The Rudd Labor government later restored funding for some services through a compulsory Student Services and Amenities Fee, which could not be used for student union membership or political activities.

Apart from student union membership and possible student activism, there was another agenda behind the abolition. Elected student representatives had control over allocation of funding and provision of services.

The Liberals were keen to wrest control from students and contract out services to their private sector mates. The aim would then become profit generation for multi-national corporations rather than cheap services where the purpose was student needs, not profit making.

The neo-liberal economics and ideology of the Liberal Party does not care one iota about those struggling to get an education. Students from working class backgrounds or women attempting to gain qualifications and return to the workforce after raising a family count for little.

National Party Senators, including Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash have expressed opposition to this latest move because of the detrimental impact it will have on regional and rural education. Joyce, in particular, reacted strongly.

Abbott appeared stunned by the strong reaction to Pyne’s announcement, which it appears had not been cleared by the Prime Minister before its release. He publicly rebuked his Education Minister and tried to smooth over the public divisions within the Coalition.

But his attempts to counter Pyne’s statement fell far short of ruling it out as policy. “We are going to be a very busy and active government over the next years and this is not a priority for us and we have no plans for change in this area at this time,” Abbott said.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from his statement is that there will be plans at another time! He failed to say the Liberals will not do it, not that such a claim would mean much.

“The Prime Minister told the Australian people that he would lead a government offering no “nasty surprises, and no lame excuses”, Jeannie Rae, president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said. “But within the first month of government they have announced plans to roll back student access, axe services, dump the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) and cut funding to the sector by $2 billion. It is clear that the Coalition have had a hidden agenda on universities for some time.”

Pyne did promise a major overhaul of universities. This is only just beginning.

Next article – PNG reneges on refugee deal

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