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Issue #1638      May 14, 2014

No cuts! No fees!
No corporate universities!

Protesters on the ABC’s Q&A program last week certainly rattled guest panellist, federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne. A lot of the subsequent corporate and social media commentary got bogged down in the question of the right of participants to their chanting and banner dropping protest. But their message was spot on – the Abbott government is putting the foot on the accelerator of long-standing plans to hand higher education over completely to the corporate sector.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget will reveal the next steps to be taken along the path but the neo-liberals’ longer-term plan is already available. The recently released National Commission of Audit Report puts it all out there: the Commonwealth should take full control of universities to ensure the swiftest possible, total deregulation of the sector and students must foot the bill for privatised higher eduction through increased HELP (HECS) repayments. The ultimate goal of US-style full upfront fees, corporate universities and “philanthropy” is in sight.

“Ours is a deregulatory government,” Pyne told The Policy Exchange think tank in London recently. “I can assure you unreservedly that the Coalition government will continue to take steps to set higher education providers free, provide them with more autonomy and challenge them to map out their futures according to their strengths.

“We have a lot to learn about universities competing for students and focusing on our students,” he said. “Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States.”

The Audit Report and Pyne’s various pronouncements make the neo-liberals’ objectives in the struggle surrounding higher education perfectly clear. Howard era Education Minister David Kemp and the Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton also contributed with their recent review of Labor’s “Demand Driven Funding System” which, in turn, did its part by deregulating the number of places that could be offered at universities to allow for more full-fee paying students.

Not surprisingly, Kemp supports the proposal to let universities charge what they can get away with. In a piece in The Australian co-authored by Norton entitled No ducking the issue, let’s talk fees, he concludes with a post-reform vision:

“Higher education funding would no longer be hostage to the state of the commonwealth budget. The whole system would be better funded, more resilient and more globally competitive.”

So where will the funding come from? Out of the hide of students; they will be taken hostage. In its own words, recommendation 30 of the Audit Report calls for:

  • decreasing the average proportion of higher education costs paid by the Commonwealth through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme from 59 percent to 45 percent and increasing the average proportion of costs paid by students from 41 percent to 55 percent;
  • increasing the interest rate applying to HELP loans from the current rate (equal to movements in the CPI) to a rate which reflects the full cost to the Commonwealth of making the loan (incorporating the government borrowing rate, as well as the cost of bad debts and administration costs)
  • increasing the repayment of HELP debt through reducing the threshold for HELP repayment from $51,309 per year to the minimum wage of $32,354 (with a low starting repayment rate of only 2.5 percent)
  • changing the indexation arrangements for the HELP repayment income threshold from movement in Average Weekly Earnings to movements in the CPI

The heat is being turned up on the boiled frog, which in this case is current and aspiring university students.

The Coalition is playing a devious game of dividing and conquering its opponents. Students are being reassured that they won’t notice any change to the present situation until they hit a certain (notably low) post-study income level. Wealthier research universities gathered into the Group of Eight lobby group like the idea of taking certain courses completely outside the public funding system so that students from very wealthy families could pay astronomical fees. At the other end of the scale, Victoria University has announced 300 job cuts in preparation for what university vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins calls the “new competitive tertiary market place.”

Another notion is to fund private colleges and cash-strapped TAFEs in the same way as universities, i.e. allowing students to access the HELP-HECS system and compete with universities. Some spokespersons for this sector have come out in support of the government’s plans. And Pyne has foreshadowed that taxpayer funds will be extended to for-profit universities to further blur the lines between public and private providers. The latter are being positioned to overrun the remnants of the public system.

In pushing this corporate agenda, the government spends a lot of time talking about the needs of students, “freedom” and the need to be “globally competitive”. The same dishonest language was used to destroy public education in Chile. They have ended up with an inaccessible basket case of a system. However, we could learn a lot from the brave students, workers and affected communities of that country about how to fight back!

Next article – Jobs are part of privatisation – Newman

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