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Issue #1776      May 10, 2017

Budget 2017/18 preview

PRIVATISATION

The Turnbull government’s agenda for education is part of a broader budgetary strategy which is centred on privatisation, deregulation and clobbering the poor and most disadvantaged.

It is in line with the attacks on social security recipients, the assault on penalty rates of those on the lowest incomes and its plans to privatise education and Medicare. The government realises that the 2013-14 budget went too far too quickly. It has taken a step back, changed its language and is proceeding with caution.

This budget will be used to test the water with the new Senate and determine how quickly and ruthlessly it proceeds.

The government has gone quiet on its sloganising about jobs, innovation and growth and the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It is perhaps not surprising with the latest round of cuts to school and university funding announced last week.

The Abbott/Hockey government attempted to slash $30 billion from school funding in the horror 2013-14 budget - which fortunately failed to pass the Senate. Now, in a sleight-of-hand a hedge fund manipulator would admire, Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham has announced an increase in education funding of $18.6 billion over 10 years that will leave schools $22 billion worse off, even if existing Gonski agreements between the Commonwealth and states were to be honoured in full (which they won’t be). Big increase!

State premiers, Labor and Liberal, are not happy with the loss of funding.

It does not amount to additional funds. To add further deception to injury, the government describes it as implementing Gonski funding!

Private schools benefit

Representatives from the Catholic schools system and some of the elite private schools are up in arms over the changes. The Catholic schools fear they may lose control over how the money is distributed and what it is spent on.

They involve an increase from 17 percent of the Schooling Resource Standard for government schools in 2017 to 20 percent in 2027, reflecting the Commonwealth’s role as the minority public funder of this sector.

For non-government (private) schools the increase will be from an average of 76.8 percent to 80 percent in 2027, reflecting the Commonwealth’s role as the primary public funder of this sector also.

As a result of the new package 24 elite private schools are set to experience a small reduction in public funding and 353 private schools are likely to experience a lower rate of increase.

At present the government’s Quality Schools reform package provides for an investment of $242.3 billion in schools’ recurrent funding over the next 10 years. This sounds large but is a fraction of the money being spent on the military.

The government is also increasing its investment in capital funding for nongovernment schools from an estimated $141.4 million in 2017 to an estimated $182.5 million in 2021.

Universities take another hit

Birmingham chose May Day to announce a new round of cuts to universities which are already reeling from previous cuts. Student fees will rise. Students will now be expected to meet 46 percent of the full cost of their education, up from 42 percent.

They will be required to repay their loans sooner, when they reach the income threshold of $42,000 instead of $50,000. This new threshold is only a little above the minimum wage.

At the same time the indexation rate on student loans will be increased meaning they will have to repay more on the same loan.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) estimates that the net effect of its changes will be:

  • a 10.2% decrease in real value of the Commonwealth contribution,
  • a 7.4% real increase in student fees,
  • a 2.9% reduction in the real level of public funding per student.

“It is another significant burden on the next generation already struggling under mounting cost-of-living pressures, and it will further squeeze university staff already struggling to fulfil the expectations of an expanding sector, but increasingly in insecure employment,” said NTEU national president Jeannie Rea.

The government is attempting to justify the cuts – “efficiency dividends” – to universities by pointing to a new report which found universities receive adequate funding for most courses they teach and that their revenues are growing faster than costs. The report was completely flawed, assuming a very narrow framework for costs and ignoring other aspects such as maintenance of buildings.

“While the Minister is promoting the government’s higher education reforms as a ‘no surprises’ set of relatively benign policy changes, the cuts to funding for government supported students (Commonwealth Grants Scheme) amount to a 10 percent real cut in the level of public investment per student,” said Jeannie Rea.

“Basically the government’s plan is to make students pay more, give universities less and then pocket the difference.

“Suggesting that the latest cuts won’t have a detrimental impact on teaching and learning ignores the reality that the universities’ approach to absorbing cuts has been to casualise the academic workforce.

“The NTEU expects this further squeeze on funding to lead to higher student to staff ratios, the cancellation of more classes, and an even greater reliance on the use of casual staff, who already deliver up to 70 percent of classes in some courses,” Rea warns.

“These cuts will not only compromise the quality of teaching, research and community service our universities can offer, they will also contribute to de-professionalising academic work, and placing our much-envied international reputation at risk.”

Neo-liberal agenda

When the public education system was introduced in the early 1870s in Australia, there was a need for a more educated workforce following the industrial revolution.

The requirements today, with so much automation and the potential for even more have changed that. Education will in the eyes of the capitalists become increasingly the realm of the rich, with the exclusion of the overwhelming section of the working class.

While the extra dollars for schools are welcome, they fall far short of what is needed. Philosophically, these cuts reflect the elitist, born-to-rule rights-to-entitlements view of the Liberal Party and must be defeated.

Next article – Editorial – Defeat of fascism – Never forget

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