No change of fundamentals in Labor's
higher education policies
by Bob Briton It's true that Labor's higher education policies — announced last month by Opposition Leader Simon Crean and Shadow Education Minister Jenny Macklin - - remove a number of threats from tertiary institutions and would bring some relief to long-suffering students. However, the fundamentals of the current higher education system — laid down with the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) by Labor, itself, in 1988 and which have helped to cement privilege in place in Australian society — would remain essentially the same under Labor's "new" regime. The ALP's package would add 20,000 fully funded places to universities by 2008. This undertaking would cost $314.8 million with another $347.6 million to be spent on the full funding of 25,000 places only partially funded at present. A further $312 million would be paid to universities over four years to maintain the value of funding. Labor hopes to fund 3125 new nursing places and 4600 additional teaching places by 2008. HECS fees for science and maths students would be reduced by $1600 a year in an effort to attract more enrolments in those courses. The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) declared itself pleased with Labor's policies and, no doubt, welcomes the fact that part of the funding would come from the scrapping of the industrial relations blackmail contained in the Federal Government's own "reform" package. With the May Budget, the Government announced that a share in $450 million worth of capital grants would be withheld from universities that failed to introduce IR "reforms". Universities would be expected to force their staff onto individual (non-union) contracts that prohibit the taking of industrial action. Naturally the National Tertiary Education Union welcomed this particular commitment from Labor. Most Australians would applaud the proposal to partially fund the cost of Labor's package with a $160 million cut in tax breaks currently given to foreign executives working in Australia and a $467 million cut over four years from the diesel rebate given to mining companies. The rebate would be reduced from 100 per cent [!] to 90 per cent. Labor promises to redirect some of the Coalition's $1.5 billion Budget spending and dip into the coffers to the tune of another $88 million to fund their changes. Students would benefit from the lifting of the income threshold at which they would have to start paying their HECS fees to $35,000 per annum. Rent assistance of $90 per fortnight for students receiving Austudy is another modest improvement as is the decision to lower the age at which students are deemed to be independent of their parents, to 23 years by 2007. Labour would also scrap the Howard Government's scheme to allow universities to fill up to half of their course places with students able to pay full up-front fees and would cap the fees that universities could charge their students. There can be no argument that Labor's policy package is preferable to the Government's Budget package. However, it does little to tackle the inequity now built into higher education in Australia. The recent National Report on Higher Education in Australia compiled by the Department of Education, itself, has put its finger on the main problems. It points out that, while thresholds for repayment and HECS contributions may go up and down, student numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds remain steady (and unsatisfactory) at around 16 per cent of total enrolments. The paper concludes that social and cultural factors, rather than financial ones, must be behind the failure of the system to help students from poorer backgrounds to complete higher education. This echoes the sentiments of Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott who believes that the major reason for poverty in Australia is simply the "bad choices" that poor people make. These policy makers, from comfortable backgrounds, refuse to acknowledge that the inadequacy of Austudy assistance and the inevitability of starting out a working life with a debt of up to $144,000 could discourage those without a wealthy Mummy or Daddy on the scene. Labor's policy announcement only tinkers with a higher education system based on these sorts of assumptions. The system of privilege should be brought to an end. This requires the complete abolition of fees and full and adequate public funding of university places and schools as a very minimum — something Labor is not prepared to commit itself to. Such basic rights as quality education for all, and university entry on the basis of merit require the building of a left and progressive movement and the election of a government of a new type which is not tied to corporate interests but is based amongst the people.