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Issue #1671      February 4, 2015

Corporatising higher, education

Education Minister Christopher Pyne is piling the pressure on Labor and Senate cross-benchers to pass his higher education “reforms”. The Federal Budget package, which includes letting universities set their own fees, cutting their course funding dramatically and spreading federal funding to private colleges, TAFE and sub-bachelor degree programs, has met stiff resistance. Students, the universities themselves and some key small party and independent Senators have seen through the spin about “competition” and “sustainability”. Pyne has compromised on some of the detail but he has his orders to deliver a “free” market in tertiary education, $100,000-plus degrees from corporate universities devoted to boosting private profits. Delivery is due by March of this year.

The federal government has made this privatising attack a major priority. It has spent $8 million on a media blitz with the reassuring but dishonest message that the changes are minimal. That’s on top of the $2.5 million for the design of the ads and $560,000 for focus groups and market research. The message can’t be sold. Anybody with primary school maths can work out that removing the cap on university fees at the same time as reducing university funding by 20 percent will result in huge fee increases for students.

Pyne is sticking to his neo-liberal guns. “We are deregulating the university system in Australia. That means universities will compete with each other. We are also injecting 140 non-university higher education providers into the market,” he said last year. “The winners are going to be the students and parents of the students and the society as a whole as competition weaves its magic at university.” Universities that jack up their fees too far will have empty lecture theatres, or so the story goes.

Studies don’t back up the education minister. Modelling by the LH Martin Institute shows that universities will be forced to increase fees significantly and that the “group of eight” leading universities, especially, will be able to extract more income from reduced numbers of wealthier students. A nice elitist touch!

The federal government is also proposing to cut the $2.8 billion committed annually to university research. Many universities could be forced to use part of the increased fees to subsidise academic research. Anticipating this pressure, Pyne wants to remove the requirement that universities must engage in research. “In my view if universities don’t want to focus on research they shouldn’t have to,” he said. If successful, teaching only “universities” would be added to the attack on research in Australia. It comes on top of the $420 million funding cuts to the CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Research Council, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Cooperative Research Centres and other agencies.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has indicated that the government wants to tie university research funding to the production of lucrative results for big business. “We might think about realigning block grants to commercial incomes, and awarding them to universities not on the basis of how many papers they’ve published but actually on how many patents they have registered,” he said. The Minerals Council of Australia has backed the minister up and a pro-corporate shake-up of the Excellence in Research for Australia body that distributes Commonwealth funding can be expected.

Winners

Other winners in the Pyne “reform” package are private universities, private training and vocational institutes and those offering associate degree programs. TAFE’s ability to compete for a share of the $820 million in new federal funding has been eroded greatly in recent times.

Religious teaching and training institutes will also benefit. The likes of the Sydney College of Divinity, Brisbane’s Christian Heritage College and the Perth Bible College stand to get $4,214 in funding per student per year. Catholic colleges offering courses such as “Theology and Practice of Natural Family Planning” and “Marriage in the Catholic Tradition” would get funding. Priests could receive taxpayer support for part of their training raising concerns for the principle of the separation of church and state. Damage to that principle was done last year when the federal government announced it would provide $244 million for a new school chaplaincy scheme and remove the option for schools to hire secular welfare workers. Clearly, the Abbott government likes to drape its corporate agenda in a religious cloak.

Unintended consequences?

If HECS debts are allowed to drift up to the levels of the mortgage on a home, other very negative consequences are inevitable. The predicament of foreign students gives some insights. Universities are already under pressure to pass foreign students lest the institution gets the reputation of extracting high fees without delivering a degree. Good old capitalist competition could lead to a sharp decline in standards if the staggering fees charged to foreign students are extended to the rest of the student body.

Cheating would become an industry. The use of fake ID for sitting exams and the downloading of assignments from disreputable websites would become more common. Fairfax media recently reported on the questionable services offered by the MyMaster Group Pty Ltd. “Are you racking your brains on your school work? Do you worry about spending $3,000 retaking tuition on the failing subject? Leave your worries to MyMaster and make your study easier,” a flyer at the University of Technology Sydney advises. The website offers assignments and papers to foreign students under enormous pressure to succeed and it appears services like MyMaster have many customers.

“Elite” institutions, lower standards and corruption. That’s what corporate higher education will deliver. The Abbott agenda must be defeated and a movement for free, universally accessible and secular education must be built.

Next article – Editorial – A right royal disaster

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