On the 19th of June, Minister for Education Dan Tehan delivered an address to the National Press Club, formally announcing a series of reforms to the higher education sector. These reforms included significant changes to student fee contributions for a variety of degrees, including a 28% fee increase for Law and Commerce degrees, as well as a whopping 113% increase for Humanities.
As a Humanities student myself, I was gutted to learn about these proposed fee increases. Whilst the government has emphasised that the fee hikes will only apply to new students commencing their study from 2021 onward, and to all students from 2024, the knowledge that these fee hikes will not necessarily apply directly to my cohort does not lessen my frustrations surrounding this issue. The government’s blatant devaluing of the Culture and Arts Industry–an industry which contributed $111.7 billion to our economy in 2016-17–merely demonstrates their misguided understanding of what sectors contribute not only economic value to our communities, but immense cultural and social value also. The Liberal government’s mass cull of funding to many of our most important national and state creative arts organisations earlier this year had already highlighted their disinterest in encouraging participation in the Arts, and now they’ve only reminded us as a national community of that sentiment.
Upon the release of Dan Tehan’s original media statement, whilst Humanities students and educators recoiled in fear and anxiety around the now uncertain future of their industries, students in nursing, teaching, agriculture and many STEM fields momentarily rejoiced upon learning that student fees for these degrees would be reduced. What the government has tried to downplay, however, is the tremendous reduction in funding that they will be contributing to many of these degrees. Estimates, created from the government’s own statistics, suggest that students will now be paying $470 million more for their degrees, meanwhile the government will be contributing $300 million less. Students will be paying more for their degrees, yet receiving far less in return, as the reduction in government support will force universities to run their degrees on less funding, meaning the quality of education within our higher academic institutions will be dramatically decreased. If these proposed reforms proceed, expect to see larger class sizes, mass redundancies and the increased casualisation of academic staff, worse student facilities and resources, longer marking times for assessments, and a general decline in the quality of our education, not just for Humanities, Law and Commerce students, but for all of us.
Furthermore, on the 13th of August, the Liberal government announced yet another reform that will make it more difficult for students to access tertiary education. By unveiling a plan to withdraw students’ access to HECS-HELP should they be unable to pass at least 50% of their units in their first year of an undergraduate degree, the government has quite clearly expressed their complete disinterest in providing accessible education to the public. This proposed reform also targets already disadvantaged and marginalised students particularly, as life circumstances and personal factors such disability, illness, financial instability, lack of access to education earlier in life, unsafe living environments and the experience and ongoing effects of trauma all contribute significantly to many students requiring more time and extra assistance in completing their units. I personally cannot help but feel that this reform promotes the mentality that a university education should be reserved for the perceived social elite, and that those outside of that privileged class should not be given the right to access higher education. Through promoting education only within the context of boosting the jobs market, the government is simultaneously attempting to undercut the importance of having a more broadly educated and generally self-aware society, as well as devaluing imperative skills–often taught widely within universities–such as critical thinking.
Despite the all-encompassing disillusionment that many students and tertiary educators alike are understandably feeling right now, the responses by student collectives all over the country to these attacks on education have been promisingly swift. The organisation Student Fightback has coordinated protests, rallies and occupations in several capital cities across the country. In Perth, the Hands Off Our Education campaign, run collaboratively by the Curtin and UWA student guilds, has been at the forefront of our state’s fight against both the fee hikes and the reduced availability of HECS-HELP.
Now is an incredibly important time for students, tertiary educators and anyone who acknowledges the immense importance of accessible, inclusive and equitable education to band together to demonstrate just how seriously we take these audacious attacks on not only the next generation of students, but also the very notion of education itself.
Education is perhaps the most powerful tool we have in making our world a more open-minded, just and truly fascinating place. There is no better time like the present, I believe, to fight for a world like that.