Image Description: A poster for the upcoming protest on the 28th of August. It sees multiple people protesting, with text that reads “No fee hikes! No uni cuts! National Student Protest. 1pm, Forrest Chase, August 28”
By Esa Chrulew
Liberal Education minister Dan Tehan has announced plans to limit access to HECS loans for students who fail to perform academically. This attack on students is the only the latest in an onslaught intended to massively privatise our already underfunded higher education system. Instead of being a public good, the Liberals want universities to be run as profitable businesses that churn out graduates as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. The only way to fight this attack is to take our outrage to the streets.
The proposal will force students who fail half of their units after completing 8 units to abandon their studies, switch degrees or pay full fees up front if they wish to continue their chosen courses. According to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, the changes will impact approximately 2500 students each year. Paying course fees upfront is already impossible for most students, made more difficult with the recent increase to fees, including the doubling of the cost of Arts Degrees. For an Arts course, students would be forced to pay a whopping $14 500 upfront for just one year of tuition.
Tehan has argued that by denying students HECS he is actually doing them a favour, as he is preventing them from accumulating debt without receiving a degree. The assertion that the government has students’ interests at heart is laughable. In reality, the reform is about pushing the cost of higher education back onto the students themselves, and reducing the contribution from the government. At the same time that the Liberals cry poor when confronted about funding higher education, they are happy to dish out $270 billion worth of extra funding for the military budget. The reduced government contribution incentivises universities to seek alternative private funding for courses, leaving space for corporations central to Australian capitalism to fill the funding gap. Mining companies like Woodside, Chevron and Rio Tinto, as well as weapons manufacturers Thales and Raytheon, have deals with UWA to structure courses around research into their industries. The recent changes to course fees is an attempt to funnel more students into these fields, at the threat of severe financial penalty.
Failing at least one unit is a pretty common experience for students. A 2018 study of 9000 students, conducted by The Conversation, found that 52% of students in education, civil engineering, nursing, and commerce failed at least one unit over the course of their degree. The main reasons cited for their failure were working long hours, health problems, and financial strain. These changes will place an additional and totally unnecessary burden on those students already struggling to study – disproportionately affecting poor and international students, who often have to enrol into full-time study in order to access Youth Allowance or to meet visa requirements, when part-time study may actually be more suitable for them. The government could reduce these burdens by providing students with sufficient financial support, but instead they make studying even more difficult and expensive, and then punish students who struggle to cope by making them choose to either quit or pay.
Students have a simpler solution to the issue of student debt; cancel it. Education should be free, and funded through taxes on the businesses that benefit from the very skilled workforce that universities provide. The currently doubled Centrelink rate should be maintained, as students should not have to live in poverty and regularly skip meals while studying. While these demands seem obvious to students, they will not come without a fight from the current government. They value profitability over student well-being, so they will not reverse these attacks without a massive resistance from students committed to defending education. A nation-wide student rally has been called by the National Union of Students on August 28th to put pressure on the Liberals and demonstrate the willingness of students to resist every attack on their right to education. The Perth rally will be happening at 1pm at Forrest Chase.
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Image courtesy of Pixabay