24-08-2016 – The figures are staggering. $20 billion of government funding cut from the University sector, a drift towards total deregulation of fees, $100 000 degrees, and the privatisation of higher education. Combine this with a further slated 20% cut in funding, and a 100% increase in class sizes over the last generation, and the labelling of tertiary education as being “Americanised” is no exaggeration. Along with the daylight robbery type fees, crowded lectures, more online courses and less contact with tutors have become the norm. Higher Education in Australia is becoming, or has become, unaffordable for all but the most privileged.
The quality of the education provided at Universities today and the fees charged proceed in inverse proportions. The worse the quality, the more fees are charged. University staff also suffer – there has been a raft of job cuts at Universities around the country, and many tutors who have some employment are only taken on for short-term contracts. Casualisation is rife, with tutors sometimes only paid for the actual student contact hours. In contrast, the remuneration for University Vice-Chancellors continues to be obscene. Figures for VC salaries from 2015 reveal that the lowest VC salary was $540,000, while seven VCs pulled a salary of over 1 million per year. Universities have become commercialised degree factories, whose graduates are endorsed for uncritically accepting the privatisation of virtually everything.
The rapidly approaching full deregulation of fees will adversely affect international as well as domestic student. A HSBC report found that despite Australia having the highest education costs of any country in the world, international students make up 20% of tertiary student body. These students are treated by University administrations as little more than cash cows, who are charged higher fees than domestic students. These international students have to work to pay the tuition fees in addition to their living expenses, while somehow studying full time. This leads many international students to undertake any available work, often ending up being illegally underpaid by notorious outfits such as the 7 Eleven convenience stores.
While the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has done some positive work to oppose the further drift to full fee deregulation, and to highlight the dangers of $100 000 degrees, it still ultimately retains an electoralist and parliamentarist strategy to address the almost terminal state of accessible higher education. In amongst encouragement to attend rallies, the NTEU officials talk about “helping out at election time” , “writing a letter to your MP”, and “ensuring that the government not abrogate its role in providing [higher education]”. The left party Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the largest left group organising on University campuses, also ultimately plays into a perspective of “pressuring” parliament and parliamentary parties, despite its laudable organisational role. SAlt correctly recognise that both Liberal and Labor parties back the effective privatisation of higher education, but often tailor their calls to target Liberal party ministers, which opens the door for work on the ground with Labor and Greens aligned students.
To be clear, the ongoing attacks on higher education in this country are not a result of the ideas or ideology of the major political parties, nor are they the result of the ideology of “neoliberalism”. Higher education is being privatised due to the economic crisis engulfing the capitalist world economies, mired in effective recession since 2008. In this country, the privatisation of higher education began in 1989 under the Labor Party, but has continued ever since, regardless of whether there has been a Liberal/National, Labor or Labor/Greens coalition. All of these parties are committed to maintaining the capitalist system at the expense of the suffering of working people. All “liberal democratic” governments in this country are thus in practice arms of a dictatorship of the owners of the means of production. This is why they no longer see it (if they ever did) as “their role” to provide accessible higher education, as the NTEU leadership implores.
It is only a socialist government which genuinely sees its role as providing education for all working people. It is in the material interests of a socialist government to ensure all its citizens have access to all forms of education to establish an educated workforce, but also to ensure the scientific and cultural progress of that society. There is a socialist state in the Asia-Pacific region which does provide all its citizens with free education – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – referred to by the corporate media as “North Korea”). The DPRK has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is only 1.3% the size of Australia’s GDP, yet it is able to provide education at all levels, including 12 years of schooling, and between 3 and 5 years of University education at no cost to DPRK citizens. What is more, all University graduates are guaranteed employment, as the concept of unemployment is unknown in the DPRK.
It is a far cry from what young working people in Australia face – crippling or unaffordable tuition fees, and a high likelihood of unemployment upon graduation. The contrast between capitalism and socialism could not be more stark. While we face the barrier of wholesale deregulation, however, the same methods used to secure a socialist state – class struggle – is ultimately the only way of obtaining a decent and accessible education system now. Students, as an intermediate body between school and the workforce, do not have the social power to bring the system to a halt. Only the working class, particularly on campus, but also in the public service and workplaces across the country, has the potential to ramp up the class struggle, through mass actions up to and including the withdrawal of labour.
The main obstacle to the linking of the student’s struggle for free education with workers’ power is primarily the influence of the top officials presiding over most Unions, who see their role as channelling any just demands into the capitalist state via pleading with “our” politicians. These politicians are not “ours” no matter how much snake oil they sell. Students and workers need to rely on their own strength, independently of the parliamentary system, to forge a mass movement which has the power to win. This will also require the formation of a workers’ party, which can champion the struggle for both free education and socialism.
DEMAND FREE EDUCATION!
PO Box 66 Nundah QLD 4012