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Issue #1640      May 28, 2014

Students fight fees rip-off

University students are taking action against the Abbott government’s decisions to load education costs onto their shoulders. Two weeks ago students booed Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and former Liberal shadow cabinet member Sophie Mirabella as they attended university functions, and students unfurled a banner and interrupted the ABC TV program Q&A.

Last Wednesday thousands of students from Sydney University, the University of Technology and Newcastle University marched down Broadway and, despite police attempts to break up their ranks, succeeded in reaching Sydney Town Hall.

Similar marches took place in Melbourne, where police forcibly removed students outside state Parliament House. The Prime Minister later decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and cancelled an appearance at Deakin University.

Students have every reason to be enraged. University fees were eliminated by the Whitlam government, and were not charged during the period in which the current federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne attended Uni in the 1970s.

The Hawke government allowed universities to reintroduce fees. It still shouldered a minor part of the graduation costs, and students were offered loans (under schemes know by the acronym HECS, and later HELP) to enable them to pay the remainder of the fees while they studied.

Students were to pay off the loans after they completed their courses and had an income over a given threshold level, but the ever-increasing fees, which have already reached $100,000 for some courses, are now a huge barrier to many students.

Those who accept the loans face huge repayment bills when they start work. Those who pay now are forced to take part-time work, if they can find it, while trying to find time for their studies. The situation places them under extreme stress, both physical and mental. Students who fail to find employment after graduation must wait six months before they’re eligible for the threadbare Newstart allowance.

Putting in the boot

And now fees are likely to rocket, because the Abbott government wants to deregulate universities in 2016, allowing them to charge whatever they can get away with.

Moreover, the government wants the interest charges for student loans to rise from the level set by the rise in the CPI, currently almost zero, to the level of the Commonwealth 10 year bond rate, currently 6 percent.

The government’s contributed share of students’ degree costs will also decline by 20 percent on average after 2016, and students will have to make up the difference. The threshold annual income level above which student loans must be repaid after graduation will fall from the current $51,309 to $46,179.

Funding for the university research training scheme will be cut by $170 million, and universities will now be able to charge fees for research degrees.

Students at TAFE colleges will also be subject to hefty increases in fees, possibly equivalent to those charged by some universities. The government will offer them loans but will also subsidise private universities, so taxpayers will end up supporting the private education sector at the expense of public institutions, just as they already do for primary and secondary education.

Despite the savage cuts in almost every other area, the government will increase funding for the school chaplaincy program to $245.3 million over the next five years, even though the program is currently under a constitutional challenge in the High Court.

And just to cap things off, students who fail to gain financially rewarding employment during their working life and want to retire on the age pension will have to work until they’re 70 before they get it.

Long term impacts

The Abbott regime’s reforms will bring back the bad old days when only the wealthy could afford to send their children to university, and now similar restrictions will begin to apply to TAFE students as well.

The new arrangements will deprive many students of the opportunity to undertake tertiary education, and most of those who manage to get through will spend a major part of their working lives struggling to pay off the student loans.

The government claims that some talented students will be helped by scholarships, but that’s totally inadequate to deal with the catastrophic impact of the new arrangements on tertiary education in Australia.

There are other long term implications. Long ago George Bernard Shaw observed that Britain’s development was retarded because it then drew its students from less than half the population, and therefore did not realise the nation’s full intellectual potential.

And that’s just what will happen here if the Abbott government is successful.

Resist, resist!

The Abbott government has used the scenes of clashes between students and police to try and turn public opinion against the protesters, depicting them as irresponsible hooligans.

Before the 2007 elections, John Howard began to encounter people who refused to shake his hand in his tours of public places. When Kevin Rudd offered his apology for the stolen generations tragedy he was followed by then opposition leader Brendan Nelson, but the Aboriginal people at that gathering were incensed at Nelson’s speech and turned their backs towards him while he spoke.

These gestures are powerful symbols of protest. The shunning of Liberal and National MPs, combined with action at demonstrations will help to swing public opinion against the conservative policies of the coalition and kick them out of office.

And they certainly should be. Education is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but the Abbott government sees health and education in terms of commodities and business opportunities rather than human rights, and it is committed to markets, not public services.

It’s now crucial for all sections of Australian society that have been savagely attacked in the government’s budget to unite, and replace the Abbott clique with a government that will act for the benefit of the mass of the people, not for Abbott’s corporate mates who have benefited from the budget at everyone else’s expense.

Next article – Editorial – Dismantling the Federation

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