The Guardian August 13, 2003


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.

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