Uni students battle rising fees
by Peter Mac Australian students face rising academic fees. This year student debt will probably soar by almost $1 billion to $9.057 billion. The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) predicts the debt will grow by $2.5 billion by 2006. Some 20 percent of students managed to pay "up front" fees last year. The others will have to make Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) deferred payments when they land a job. Fees for some degrees exceed $6000 per year, and most HECS students will have a debt of at least $20,000 on graduation. National Union of Students President, Daniel Kyriakou, last week commented that many students will have to reconsider undertaking courses, while "thousands of graduates will be unable to buy a house, start a family or make any savings." According to ALP parliamentarian Jenny Macklin, student debt has more than doubled since 1996, while student fees have increased 85 percent and now constitute more than a third of university income. Despite this, the government will allow universities to again increase the cost of the most popular courses. The salaries of university staff, aptly nicknamed "the new poor" are falling behind. Postgraduate students are also being squeezed, and their numbers are dwindling. This year's University Triennium Report says that between 1996 and 2001 the number of postgraduate HECS places fell from 69 percent to 33 percent, with universities demanding upfront fees for the rest. Postgraduate student numbers fell by 15.5 percent, or 6900 places, in this period. Despite the student fee income, many universities face major financial difficulties. Three universities applied for an advance on this year's federal funding. To avoid financial difficulties universities need a minimum annual operating cost surplus of three to five percent. However, in 2001, 18 universities failed to reach three percent. Without additional funding they must either increase student fees or accept a gradual slide towards bankruptcy — or both. In the final phase of the Whitlam government era, university fees were abolished, bringing Australian universities into line with Athens University, where education has always been free, despite the relative impoverishment of the Greek population. In contrast, since then Australian tertiary education has moved towards market-driven education. Previously, we received public education services out of our taxes. That simple and just arrangement is now being replaced by an education system where private education institutions are actually paid by the government to make huge profits at the expense of students. And some universities are resorting to unscrupulous means to break even. Former Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Alice Tay, recently commented bitterly that "the scramble of universities to join the corporate world, the commercialisation of so-called education in the last 20 years, has made a mockery of the university. The dishonesty of the corporate world has taken hold of university management and scholarship." She claimed that universities are now "selling degrees", results are inflated, students who should fail are passed, mediocrity is tolerated, and the current "ideology" corrodes scholastic rigour. The Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, has pointed out that a former Labor government introduced the HECS scheme. He failed to acknowledge that it was the Fraser Government that re- introduced tertiary education fees (for some categories of students), and that subsequent conservative governments starved universities of funding and forced up fees. It is becoming ever more apparent that this appalling situation will only be rectified by electing a progressive party or coalition and consigning conservative governments to the dust-bin of history.