The future of higher education hangs in the balance


Universities have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and now funding to certain degrees is being slashed. But in contrast to the government’s misguided attempt to create ‘job-ready’ degrees, the Greens believe higher education should be accessible and free – now more than ever.

By Juanita Doorey

The Minister for Education Dan Tehan dropped a bombshell when he recently announced a substantial hike in student fees for humanities, law and commerce courses, and a reduction for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), teaching and nursing courses.

The government’s intention is to “…incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices that lead to more job-ready graduates, by reducing the student contribution in areas of expected employment growth and demand.” In other words, the government is trying to manoeuvre students towards more vocationally oriented courses in areas of projected labour market demand.             

This higher education policy ‘re-set’ comes on the back of university employees being excluded from the Jobkeeper scheme, universities experiencing massive loss of income due to the coronavirus pandemic, and reduced numbers of international students and declining government funding over many years. The Abbott government also tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce deregulation in 2014-15, allowing universities to set their own undergraduate fees. Fortunately, this move towards deregulation was defeated in the Senate with the Greens, Labor and some crossbench senators voting against it.

During his recent National Press Club address Dan Tehan also announced an increase of 39,000 university places in the next four years. This appears to be another reason for hiking up some student fees: so the government doesn’t have to pay for the increased costs of more university places.

Encouragingly, there has been significant criticism and opposition to the government’s recent higher education announcement. Some commentators have focused on education as an important ‘public good’ and the value of humanities courses in developing critical thinking skills. Greens education spokesperson Senator Mehreen Faruqi responded to the announcement by referring to the ‘abject failure’ of the government’s 2018 funding freeze and asserting that universities are a public good and not just about getting a job.

Several high-profile vice-chancellors have also spoken out about the unintended consequences of the funding shake up, including the ‘perverse’ incentive for universities to teach more humanities and less science related units. With the introduction of a $14,500-a-year fee for law, business and humanities courses, student fees will now be so high that universities could consider recruiting many more students into these courses, as they would pay for themselves. Another consequence could be universities offering fewer student places for STEM courses as income from student fees could be lower comparatively. Other university educators have referred to the importance of students having the opportunity to gain cross-disciplinary skills; for example, engineering students enrolling in law and arts units. However, the increases in student fees for these types of units may reverse this trend.

The Next Gen Guarantee and Greens education policy

It is probably no surprise that the Greens’ higher education policy is in stark contrast to the Coalition’s policy direction. As part of the Greens’ ‘Next Gen Guarantee’ young people would be guaranteed a free place at university or TAFE (or an apprenticeship or traineeship) to enable them to pursue their passion and obtain a qualification in an area they are committed to, without incurring massive debt.  

So rather than students being manoeuvred into vocationally oriented courses and  graduating with significant debt, the Greens advocate that higher education should be free and students encouraged to pursue their real interests. The Greens also advocate that a strong public education system is central to investing in the next generation and that everyone is entitled to well-funded and high quality, life-long public education and training. Importantly, the Greens believe it is a key responsibility of government to fund the public education system and to provide high-quality education. In response to the government’s recent education package, Senator Faruqi asserted: “We need free TAFE and uni for all students to meet rising demand during the recession and that without a major funding increase, thousands of university jobs will be lost and the quality of education will decline”. 

Before the last federal election, the Greens released a five-point plan for higher education that aimed to:

  1. Remove all student fees from university and TAFE across Australia, making higher education universal and removing barriers to education for everyone.
  2. Boost university funding by 10 percent per student to improve learning and teaching conditions, reduce class sizes and enable researchers to pursue solutions to the big problems of our time.
  3. Link additional funding for universities with an increase in security of work for university staff, reversing the decades’ old trend of casualisation and insecure work.
  4. Tie the HELP repayment threshold to the median wage, which will mean that students with existing debts won’t begin repaying their debt until they are earning a decent wage.
  5. Raise student support payments like Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy.    

Since the federal election, the health, social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have been widely felt across the country and are still being felt around the world. The Greens recently released Invest to Recover - The Greens’ Economic Recovery Plan for Australia, which uses a Green New Deal framework to outline how the Greens would lead an economic recovery. The plan includes ‘The Next Gen Guarantee’ and guarantees of free access to higher education.  

Paying for the ongoing costs of investments in free education would be achieved by winding back handouts for big corporations and big polluters and axing tax cuts for millionaires passed into law by the Liberal and Labor parties. The Parliamentary Budget Office costed the Greens’ education plan during the last federal election, with two key measures paying for the plan: ending fossil fuel subsidies for mining companies and making off shore gas companies pay royalties and super profits tax.   

The future of higher education

Whether or not the government’s education package passes the Senate seems to depend on Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie. If it does pass, it will be yet another blow to young people in this country and to the sustainability and viability of higher education. If it doesn’t pass, there will still be a need for a significant increase in government funding for the higher education sector. The Greens have a plan to invest in young people and higher education, which will contribute to Australia’s economic recovery – something we need more than ever right now.

Juanita Doorey is a member of the Greens’ Fremantle-Tangney branch.     

A version of this article first appeared in Green Issue. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Greens.

« Back to AUGUST issue

Help Save Uni JobS » | Join the fight to stop uni fee hikeS »