University — a privilege for the rich?
by Peter Mac The Howard Government is considering deregulating university fees. Implementation of such a policy would very quickly eliminate uni education as an option for thousands of Australian students. Some estimates of the cost of the most popular uni courses after deregulation are as high as $100,000. Three years ago the Government rejected a plan for deregulation of fees put forward by then education Minister David Kemp. Now, it seems, the time for implementing Kemp's "vision" has come. Under the Howard Government, public funding for Australian university education has progressively shrunk. Public universities have been forced to become more reliant on the corporate sector and student fees. As a result courses have been cut, the integrity and independence of research threatened and a university education put beyond the reach of many potential students. The Government is now conducting a series of reviews into the issue with the aim of moving further down the path of deregulation and turning higher education into a commodity to be bought and sold on competing markets. The funding crisis which has been deliberately created by the Government is being used as an excuse to take the next, unpopular steps in this direction. Thirty-eight members of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee recently proposed a range of options to deal with the funding crisis. These included increased fees, more "flexibility" in admissions (hip pocket selection), and an increase in public funding (up to 2 per cent of GDP). The Government has ignored the latter option and the results of a recent poll which found two thirds of the public opposed deregulation. Instead it has interpreted the Vice-Chancellors' statement with enthusiasm, as a call for deregulation of university fees. Howard himself told parliament: "We are going to seriously address ... what the vice- Chancellors have put forward." "You need a government that has got the guts to do something about it." However, the President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Carolyn Allport, responded angrily that "... to have this come up as the funding option seems to me to compromise us looking at a variety of options." The proposal is also likely to run into stiff opposition from the ALP and smaller parties in the Senate. Deputy opposition leader Jenny Macklin commented last week that "deregulating university fees would mean that access to higher education would be based on wealth instead of merit, and would lead to an elite and discriminatory university system." In the 1920s George Bernard Shaw wrote an essay pointing out the outrageous injustice of university education facilities being built with public money and then being accessible only to the very rich. He also noted that this process ensured that the nation's development was being stunted by a system in which the collective intellect of only 16 percent of the population was cultivated. In the 1970s, at the tail end of the Whitlam Labor Government's period in office, university fees were abolished, only to be re-introduced by the Hawke/Keating Labor Government a decade later. University education is still free in Greece, one of the poorest countries in Europe. But not here, not now. Wealthy Australia's HECS university fees now guarantee that for most students and their families an Australian university education is a financially gruelling experience. Many students are now forced to sink into debt, or to drop out of their courses. The President of the National Union of Students, Moksha Watts, rejected the idea put forward by some that the universities could use extra fees to provide support for the poorest students. She remarked, "The bitter lesson of the 1990s was that as universities deregulated their fees and commercialised their operations, they diverted funds from student support services." If it adopts the policy of deregulating university fees, the Howard Government will be guilty of plunging Australia's University system back into an education "dark age", in which tertiary education is effectively restricted to the rich and their children.