The Guardian March 5, 2003


Students sacrificed for war

As the Australian Government prepares for its looming attack on Iraq, 
social goods are being compromised to sponsor the killings of Iraqi people. 
The anti-terrorism rhetoric has become part of Federal Education Minister 
Brendan Nelson's justification for further government funding cuts to 
higher education.

His proposed deregulation reforms will shift the funding burden from the 
government to the individual student in an expansion of the user-pays 
system of education.

Already Melbourne University's proportion of government funding is a mere 
23 per cent, and Cabinet's approval of Nelson's proposals last week 
indicates that this is just the beginning.

The proposals entail deregulation of fee structures that will allow 
universities to increase fees by 25 per cent, broaden of the loans system 
to entice students to take full-fee-paying courses, drop standards for full 
fee-paying students and increase the proportion of full-fee-paying students 
that universities are allowed to admit.

A deregulated fee-paying system will diminish the overall quality of 
education. Its effects will be worse for smaller and remote universities 
that will find it difficult attracting full fee-paying students.

Although the reforms are yet to be put through parliament and its budgetary 
implications yet to be finalised, funding will almost certainly not 
increase, placing more pressure on Australia's universities.

Even with increases in full fee-paying students, higher education will find 
it impossible to reach pre-1995 funding levels.

Already Australian universities receive less government funding as a 
proportion of GDP than in the United States and Canada. The level has 
dropped from 1.7 percent of GDP in 1995 to 1.5 percent in 2002.

Last year these preliminary proposals for deregulation were met with 
student demonstrations across Australia. Students will have a lot to lose 
if the reforms go ahead, including their ability to organise.

Slipped into the reform package is a reincarnation of Voluntary Student 
Unionism (VSU) plans. This will undermine the current structure of student 
representative associations that are financially and ideologically 
buttressed by compulsory unionism.

Examples of VSU in Western Australia and Victoria have had a crippling 
effect on the student movement. There are also threats to the present 
system of university industrial relations and to the bargaining power of 
staff unions.

Placing limits on organised dissent appears to be another manifestation of 
an ideology of conservative individualism in a climate of mounting 
collective dissent.

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