Why the Government is telling poor kids to dream poorer dreams
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Imagine being in year 12 this year.

Year 12 is bad enough in normal times. The homework. The exams. The pressure. This is your future.

Now there’s the pandemic, and you have to do all of that at home, with stressed out parents watching your every move and stressed out teachers having to become tech experts overnight. Log on to Zoom, or Teams, or whatever. Turn your camera on young lady. No, you can’t go to the bathroom, we’re doing a test. Absolutely do not hang out with your friends. No formals, no end-of-year parties, just study, stress, and schoolwork. Wear the school branded face mask.

Then came last Tuesday. Tuesday was the day that broke a lot of university workers. I’ve seen a lot of tears in colleagues’ eyes, and, frankly, despair.

But I imagine Tuesday was also the day that broke a lot of high school students, too. Because in the middle of all of this, the Morrison Government has decided that, starting next year, the cost of going to university for a lot of students will double.

Read that again. After all this, after everything that’s happened in 2020, the government is asking some students to foot a massive bill for their education. An education that a lot of our parliamentarians got for free.

They’re pulling the ladder up behind them. Telling poor students to piss off. That university isn’t for them, pandemic or no pandemic. That their dreams, their future, is too expensive.

I don’t know how to pound the alarm hard enough about what is currently happening in Australian universities. In the future, your entire life may well be fundamentally shaped by whether you went to uni before 2020 – or after it.

***

Unis have spent almost all of 2020 in crisis. The moment travel rules changed, things got a lot harder for international students (many of whom are now literally relying on food banks to live). That also meant that a big chunk of university funding disappeared, overnight. A $16 billion chunk.

The infuriating thing is: this was actually an opportunity. Universities are incredible in a crisis. In recessions, enrollments go up, and people retrain for new jobs and new lives. Investment in education creates jobs like no other industry, regardless of what is actually being studied. So what did the government do?

They began by changing the rules of eligibility for JobKeeper not once, not twice, but three times to ensure that universities couldn’t apply. 

Sorry, that should read public universities, because the four private Australian universities were given special exemptions to get that relief money. 

Oh, and New York University’s Sydney campus got it too – yes, that NYU, which operates out of, well, New York, and gets around $16.5 billion in revenue every year. But Australia’s public institutions, well, I guess they can just fend for themselves.

And by “fend for themselves,” I of course mean sack a lot of people. Since March, 12,000 people from unis are now out of a job, almost 10% of the entire workforce. That’s a lowball estimate! Universities Australia think that number will be more like 21,000 by the end of the year.

To repeat myself: that’s zero dollars spent by the government to try and save universities. They tried spending nothing and they’re all out of ideas.

***

Sorry, I take that back. They did have one idea, and that was to make degrees more expensive for students. Not a great idea, I admit.

This is something Education Minister Dan Tehan calls the “Job Ready Graduates” plan – and hold up, because even just typing out that title I’ve had a microsleep – and it was on the verge of being defeated in parliament. 

Labor, the Greens, and independent crossbencher Rex Patrick opposed it. Jacqui Lambie bloody came through, too, saying that the government was telling “poor kids to go dream elsewhere.”

One Nation, as usual, supported whatever the government wanted to do, which meant that Stirling Griff of the Centre Alliance had the single deciding vote. 

That’s the same Centre Alliance of lower house MP Rebekha Sharkie, who in June said that this plan would put costs disproportionally on women because statistically they’re overrepresented in the degrees that would be more expensive.

It was a pretty powerful point… right up until Sharkie and her party sold Australia’s students out for an upgraded road in her electorate.

***

Let’s go back to the poor bloody year 12 students.

You’re finishing up high school – in 2020, no less – and you’re hoping to get into a social sciences or humanities degree.

If you were only one year older, and you’d finished school last year, that three-year degree would cost you the already pricey HECS debt of $20,412.

But because you finished high school in 2020 – and thanks to the “Job Ready Graduates” plan (ugh) – that same degree is now going to cost you a life-changing debt of $43,500. Law, Economics, Communications, and Management and Commerce degrees are also now a lot more expensive too.

Every time you, the student of the future looks at your HECS debt, you’ll now get to think of Minister Tehan and this Government. I hope you also think of Rebekha Sharkie, Stirling Griff, and the Centre Alliance – those people who let you down. Maybe a life in debt will make you “job ready”.

Perhaps though, you’re going to do a nursing degree in 2021 because, thanks to these changes, it’s one of the few degrees that’s now cheaper to enroll in. Good news! 

Except when cutting your costs, the Morrison Government didn’t pick up the tab. Instead, they cut into uni budgets which means nobody wins! Even cheap degrees are being undermined and underfunded.

That means less money for supplies, less money for teachers, less money for classrooms. Less money for you to learn how to do your job.

It’s the same situation for teaching, agriculture, psychology, engineering, science, maths, and environmental studies. It’s great that these degrees are becoming cheaper, it really is. But all of these areas are taking a big hit in the process – the quality of your education simply can’t be the same.

The idea – if there is actually one here – is to encourage students to pick “desirable” degrees. So that means “not the Arts” because instead of the actual employment analysis that always shows humanities graduates are absurdly employable, and make more money than science and maths grads, we’ve got leaders who’ve been making the same joke since 1993 about wanting fries with that.

But holy shit find me the high school student who has spent the last two years absolutely hating doing maths a couple of times a week in school – and is now going to voluntarily enroll in a maths UNIVERSITY DEGREE because it’s a little bit cheaper? 

Have you met a high school student!? Have you met any other human being!?

The government has no modelling to support any of this, anyway. Literally none. They haven’t bothered to check how this might actually pan out. 

This is the biggest change to education in decades, and they haven’t even made a cheeky guess!

Maybe they haven’t asked the experts because they know what they’ll say (and by the way Bruce Chapman, who designed the whole HECS system, says it won’t work.)

The thing is, universities are supposed to be a public good. You remember public goods. They’re things that benefit everyone, like a road (well, maybe not Rebekha Sharkie’s road), or a healthcare system, or a functioning internet connection. 

Universities are supposed to educate people. They’re supposed to find out things about the world. They’re supposed to help us, collectively, to become smarter, to improve our own lives, to give us better prospects, to be better people, to nourish and fulfill ourselves, to help solve big problems, to make this big bloody island a better place to exist. 

The pandemic and the recession didn’t invent underpaid, casual teaching. It didn’t invent big class sizes. It didn’t invent Vice Chancellors who care more about business than education. But the pandemic was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to try and fix things, to make sure that no-one going to university was disadvantaged, that no-one had a crappy experience. 

Instead of fixing things, instead of even just sending out a lifeline, the Morrison Government actually made things worse. They took a crisis and turned it into a disaster.

The message is absolutely clear: the government will not cover the cost of a functioning university system, the cost of our public good. They will not pay for our education. For our research and ideas. For our prospects, for our ability to collectively solve the problems that we face in life. Fuck you, and figure out a way to chip in.

***

There’s only two possible explanations for the state of things.

First, it’s possible that the government is just incredibly bad at its job. I don’t mean that the lads have had a few off days, or an afternoon nap on the job here and there. I mean that, for this to make sense, they aren’t speaking to their advisors and experts, let alone asking them to look into things. I’m imagining a situation where the Minister for Education has an advisor named Bryan but the Minister thinks he’s called Ryan and no-one wants to correct him, and that’s as far as things have got in the office. 

I’m talking about a situation where they’re actively no longer thinking about the consequences of their actions, or indeed are even aware that responsibility exists. They’ve got a dart board they use to make policy and when they threw their 2020 shot it went out the window and hit a Vice Chancellor. There’s still blood everywhere. 

I’m giving a lot of detail here because the only other explanation is that the government actively wants universities to fail

They want chaos. They want to wreck it all. They want the people who work at unis to get laid off in the scale of tens of thousands – already happening – and they want those who remain to live in fear of the boot on their neck. 

It’s ideology, and of a particularly nasty sort. Even Boris Johnson – yes, Boris Johnson – managed to announce not only increased funding for UK universities, which face many of the same issues as Australian ones, but also free tuition for many.

Instead, here in Australia, we have a Federal Government who still thinks they’re winning at student politics. That it’s a great opportunity to give the campus Young Labor kids a bloody nose.

They don’t care that they’ll destroy your tertiary education in the process. They want tutorial groups of 75 students run by a teacher who doesn’t make minimum wage and has never had a day of sick leave. They do not want independent Australian research.

There is no third possibility.

I’ve seen my colleagues in tears about this. These are university workers who care deeply about their students, who spend their weekends marking many more essays than should be humanly possible, who have given decades of their life to teaching and research. 

These tears don’t come from self-pity or the fear of joblessness, but the knowledge that the entire sector – the very prospect of university life in this country – is done. 

There’s nothing left in the tank. No last-minute saves, no Senate deals, no funding recalibrations. No hope.

So where to from here?

Although the “Jobs Ready Graduates” package is now a done deal – thank you Centre Alliance – this has to be the end. 

This is the final injustice, and the last moment in Australian history where we thought it was okay to treat our education institutions as ATMs. We’ve seen where that path ends – with the Dan Tehan $43,500 HECS debt and the Rebekha Sharkie Memorial to Women’s Education.

Universities are for the public good. That’s the only move left. 

That means demanding that universities in this country aren’t just bailed out, that they aren’t just saved from this crisis, that student fees aren’t just returned to the realm of the borderline affordable. It has to go further than that. 

It means no longer accepting that the value of universities can be measured in dollars. It means no longer accepting that students need to spend their lives paying off HECS debts. It means no longer accepting that research is for the well-off. Universities have to be for everyone, no matter how rich your parents.

It means wanting to live in a country that gives a shit, with a government that gives a shit, and with people who give a shit.

It means universities have to be for us.

***

By Dr Dan Golding, Senior Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology


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