The case for free higher education does not only emphasise fair and equal access for students of all social backgrounds – this is only part of the picture. It argues that funding cuts and increased student fees not only pose a threat to the principle of equal access, but act to undermine the quality of education for all in the system.

Over the last three decades the cost of funding higher education has shifted away from the commonwealth government and onto students. Universities have been pushed to think and act more like businesses, selling a product to consumers. This has had corrosive effect on university culture.

The principal concern of the modern university is to reduce costs and increase profit margins. Resultantly, more than half of academics are now employed on a casual basis, while tutors are overworked and underpaid. Subjects are often removed from syllabus, and many of those that remain are moved online, discouraging face to face contact between students and teaching staff (humanities students at La Trobe will be familiar with this pattern). Tutorials have become overcrowded as enrolment levels continues to rise. Meanwhile, staff are laid off to drive down labour costs. Overflowing class sizes, coupled with fewer and overworked staff inevitably reduce the ability of teaching staff to spend adequate time with each student.

The university system has been invaded by business ideology. Universities have adopted traditional top down management structures that discourage the participation of academic staff. They produce ‘corporate mission statements’ which refer to students as ‘users’, treat other universities as competitors rather than colleagues, and prioritise budgets and financial targets above quality education.

To understand how and why this has happened, we must understand how the higher education system has changed over time.

In 1972 the Whitlam government, under significant popular pressure, introduced free and universal higher education. This lasted until the late 1980s, when policy makers began to question the viability of the existing funding system. The decade saw the emergence of a ‘modernising’ economic project in Canberra, which rejected the humanitarian logic of the welfare state, and sought an era of fiscal responsibility, privatisation and greater reliance upon the market to provide social services. As a result, higher education policy took a radical new course.

In accordance with this new economic thinking, education minister John Dawkins constructed the blueprint for a new higher education system in his 1987 White Paper. According to Dawkins, commonwealth funding was insufficient to sustain enrolment into the future, so universities would have to look for other sources of revenue. In this way, the university system could be transformed into a competitive and profitable industry, capable of generating its own revenue. It was recommended that students would be charged a fee of $1800 per subject, the payment of which would be deferred until students were making a reasonable income. Additional revenue was to be extracted from international students, investments and commercial activities. These reforms were swiftly implemented. Their legacy is felt in the higher education policy of every subsequent government.

Throughout the next two decades, universities were forced to search for extra revenue as commonwealth funding decreased. Much of the new funding burden was placed on students. From 1995 government policy university grants would decrease by an average of 1.82% per year, leading to an effective cut of 17% by 2005. During the same period, student debt grew. In 1997 the Howard government divided university subjects into 3 subject ‘bands’, each of which was subject to a significant fee increase. In 2005 universities were allowed to charge a maximum fee within each band, allowing for greater control by university managers over student fees. Moreover, the share of commercial activities, international student fees and investments rose as a proportion of university budgets, as commonwealth funding decreased.

The logic of these reforms continues today. The Abbott and Turnbull governments’ supported a 20% reduction in university funding and the deregulation of student fees, which would mean that students can be charged as much for their subjects as the universities deem profitable. In last years Omnibus bill, the income threshold for HECs repayment was lowered from $54,869 to $51,957; the Student Start-Up Scholarship was turned into a loan; and a number of student grants and benefits were axed. Despite being put on hold, fee deregulation remains on the governments agenda.

A contradiction lies at the heart of the modern university system. On one hand, teaching staff are committed to providing a rich and diverse educational experience for students and future students. On the other, the cost pressures of the modern university operate at every level to undermine the quality of education. It is clear that unconditional government funding is necessary for the higher education system to serve the interests of students, rather than the bottom line. The profit motive has no place in the higher education system.

This year the National Union of Students is launching a protest campaign in support of free higher education – called Make Education Free Again. The campaign seeks to defend students and teaching staff from further cuts to higher education, while at the same time fight to reverse the changes described above – to fight for a free, universal higher education system that is fully funded by the commonwealth government. In 2014, when the Abbott government tried to deregulate fees and pass huge funding cuts, students across Australia took to the streets. As a result, public opinion shifted firmly in favour of the students, and the Abbott governments proposed legislation could not pass. Protest works. NUS is encouraging all students to join in the fight for free education.

Join us on March 22 for the next step in this campaign: State Library, 2pm.

By Dino Varrasso
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