Just prior to the 2014 Federal budget, my policy and legislation lecturer lamented the yawning absence of student activism in higher education – pretty standard in the 1960’s and 70’s. Back then no one could predict the uprising that was about to happen. Several weeks later, the Federal government outlined their new policies for the deregulation of university fees and the increased interest on HEC’s-help loans. These policies may as well have been written in the blood of students.
The response has been nothing short of incredible. On the 13th of May 2014, a dramatic shift in policy driven by neoliberal ideology changed the face of higher education. It’s yet to be seen if the Government’s attack on the education system will get through the senate but the reaction is tense, loud and sharp. The Government plans to remove the ladders that gave all people access to the ivory towers of education. Ladders that allowed people of all socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds to reach up, reach out and reach their potential. One moment, higher education is a way to change life courses and expand minds – the next, it is a commodity, something only available to people who can afford to pay.
Sure, there are suggestions of scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For every $5 that universities collect from additional fees, the Government will put $1 towards assistance packages but with increased fees, university will be unaffordable for so many people. For many it already is. Juggling university and assignments with paid work and running households is difficult enough already. I predict that the only people who will benefit from these scholarships are the people who don’t need it anyway. Frances Abbott, I’m looking at you!
These policies are ripping the guts from higher education. Education can change systemic and intergenerational poverty regardless of the social status or wealth into which they were born. I have spent the last four years studying subjects that have given me insight into the treachery that results from extreme conservative ideology, and outdated attitudes and policies. These policies really make me cranky and frightened because I’ve learned how social circumstances can be turned around through education and how a lack of education and poverty are intrinsically linked. I’ve paid nearly $20,000 for a degree that has helped me understand how a Government should run its country if it wants peace, harmony, productivity and happy citizens. Now I am watching social policy do the exact opposite of what it should. To add to my frustration, the Government is axing public service jobs and defunding programs. This makes me worry about getting a job so I can pay off the debt that I have.
I am proud of myself and my fellow students. Since the 13th of May students around Australia have shown leadership and courage, and an unbridled passion for the equality that can be achieved through higher education. My generation of students can see the flaws in the ‘earn or learn’ slogan. We are stuck between a very big rock and a very hard place. We know it’s never been ‘earn or learn’ – it’s ‘earn AND learn’. There’s no way you can put yourself though university without working unless of course daddy can pay.
So it’s a “choice”? – either pay what you can’t afford for an education, or get a job – any job. The Government doesn’t seem to give a toss about whether you enjoy your job, pursue your dreams or live a fulfilling life – as long as you’re not claiming welfare support. ‘Small government’ means limited intervention and getting away with doing very little for citizens. Instead individuals look after themselves. Sure, we are told there is still a safety net – but it is woven from very weak thread. If you fall through the cracks, it just might not hold. I feel that everything I have learned over the past four years has prepared me for this political mess. It is now up to us – students and professionals. We have to make sense of the policies that will come through the senate. Worry and unrest will be channeled into precise, passionate actions. We have the energy and knowhow to create a better ideal and recapture what education is all about. We will grow and expand our hearts and minds – not simply as a means to employment but to think.
The message to students from the Government in the 2014 budget is simple – higher education is now a user-pays system. It’s up to the current generation of students and fledgling professionals to demand what we are entitled to (as citizens and tax-payers!). Australia can’t continue down the road of becoming a two-tiered society. It will be pretty gloomy under the glass ceiling being created by this Government’s education policies.
By Polly Chester, Guest Blogger on socialworksocialwork
Polly is social work student at Griffith University. Check out Polly’s Blog.