The Guardian 30 January, 2008
Universities yet to feel crunch
Professor Bob White of the University of Western Australia recently penned a summary of the devastation wrought on Australia’s universities during eleven long years of Howard Government. Menzies’ legacy betrayed appeared in The Australian on January 16 and lists the consequences of the shrunken funding, the industrial relations blackmail, the interference with academic freedoms and the degrading of student life in Australian universities. He wonders out loud just how hopeful we should be that Rudd’s "education revolution" will stop the rot attacking our higher education system.
Howard used to like drawing comparisons between himself and Sir Robert Menzies, the long-serving conservative PM of Australia during the 1950s and 60s. However, unlike "Pig Iron Bob", who oversaw the rapid expansion of the university sector with the establishment of five new universities, Howard could lay claim to a period of gloom and decline in higher education under his stewardship:
Funding was frozen at 1996 levels
Overseas and other full-fee-paying students were tapped to make up part of the shortfall
Academics became marketers of courses of dubious value for corporate institutions
Disciplines were amalgamated
Courses were measured for "outcomes" rather than the pursuit of intellectual challenge
Scarce Commonwealth funds were made available only when anti-staff industrial relations regimes were imposed
Academic freedom was replaced with the micro-management of academics’ activities
"Voluntary Student Unionism" led to the gutting of services available to students
Last year’s one-off commitment of $6 billion to an endowment fund remains a curiosity rather than a source of relief. It is vaguely earmarked to repair crumbling university buildings; there was no mention of improvement of the core missions of teaching and research.
"Howard goes down as the only prime minister in the history of this country who has been so short-sighted as to urge students publicly to leave school midstream, and to advise them explicitly that it is not a worthy aspiration or achievement to go to university", Professor White noted.
Should students and academics be more optimistic with the election of a Labor Government? Let’s hope history isn’t a guide. Hawke sought to expand tertiary education without expanding its own commitment through the imposition of pay-later fees — the HECS system. His education minister, John Dawkins, was the first to mess with the administrative structures of universities to transform them into corporations. And since Professor White wrote his downbeat assessment the news has not been encouraging.
Earlier this month, the University of Wollongong moved to force staff for its expanded Medical School onto AWAs with no choice at all. The AWAs would last five years with no guarantees of wage increases in the last four. Allowances, leave provisions and redundancy pay are all trimmed by comparison to the collective agreement. It looks like an open and shut violation of the (lamentably lax) requirements of the Workplace Relations Act. The university refused a request from the National Tertiary Education Union to postpone the finalisation of the AWAs until negotiations could be entered into. The Federal Workplace Ombudsman will look into the matter.
Elsewhere, the National Union of Students (NUS) reports a crisis in student services facing poorer universities, especially regional ones. While better-resourced and more prestigious unis have been able to tap other sources of funding to prop up most student services, others (like Charles Sturt University, Wollongong University and the University of Western Sydney) have suffered deep cuts. A drop in union membership (of up to 95 percent!) since the imposition of "Voluntary Student Unionism" last year has sparked the crisis.
At Wollongong University, the student paper is now produced entirely by volunteers, the second-hand bookshop has shut its doors and the childcare subsidy has been removed. At the University of Newcastle, staff numbers at the Students Association have been cut by 65 percent, there is no longer any free tax or Centrelink advice and the computer lab has closed. At the University of Western Sydney, funding to clubs and societies is down 50 percent, most students’ association staff positions are gone and a shuttle bus service has been axed.
Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard sounds sympathetic and has asked Youth Minister Kate Ellis to conduct consultations with universities and student bodies on the issues. "Federal Labor will obviously allow students to voluntarily organize themselves but we think the most important thing is to ensure vital student services are restored", she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
NUS President Angus McFarland will be trying to persuade the Federal government to consider options, including alternatives to up-front union fees, at a meeting scheduled for next month. A discussion paper is being prepared by the union for consideration.