Saturday, 1 December 2012

Education is under attack - stand up, fight back!

Originally published at Green Left Weekly.

Around Australia, attacks on tertiary education have continued throughout 2012, with an ideological onslaught against the idea of well-funded public education being led by proponents of neoliberalism.

In July, Fred Hilmer, vice-chancellor of UNSW and chair of the Group of 8 Universities, a coalition of university managements, called for total fee deregulation and “cutting red tape”.

In an address to the National Press Club, Hilmer signaled that university managements intend to “play in the public policy field a lot more aggressively” when it came to government funding, modeled on the response of the mining industry to the MRRT, reported TheConversation on July 25.

He argued that capped funding requirements were enforcing a culture of “sameness” and stifling diversity in education, hampering the ability of Australian universities to compete for the international student market.

Hilmer’s address took it for granted that “a significant increase in government funding is unlikely” – and so did a report released by accounting firm Ernst and Young in October, “University of the future”, which recieved national coverage.

The report argued that major changes in the education sector are inevitable due to the “contestability of markets and funding” based on a declining level of public investment, as well as the impact digital technologies and the “democratization of knowledge” are having.

In a response, the NTEU national president Jeannie Rea stated that the government had failed to increase public investment.

However, Rea argued that the choice before the government was between the current system of 38 public institutions or a "handful of elite research intensive universities concentrated in the capital cities."

Greens higher education spokesperson Lee Rhiannon, on the other hand, took up the source of the current crisis in tertiary education - decades of "cuts to the bones", with more than $1.3 billion in funding slashed by the Gillard Labor government since the start of 2011.

"'Market contestability' and 'competition' are buzz words designed to paint increased funding cuts to public universities as inevitable and the private sector as the saviour of universities.", said Rhiannon in a statement.

For students, it's quite clear that we need to expand, not maintain or cut, our public investment in tertiary education. Classroom sizes continue to balloon, and areas of study are more and more moulded to corporate priorities. The "democratisation of knowledge" is being used by neoliberal managements to reduce staff hours and face-to-face contact time.

The wave of restructuring cuts which has taken place in 2012 has been driven by the federal government's shift to a demand-driven system which pits universities against each other for students - with the Gillard government uncapping places to encourage universities to over-enroll. University managements are shedding jobs and courses to adapt to the future of market-driven league table-based funding for higher education - yet the reccomendation from Hilmer or Ernst and Young is more of the same.

The current round of cuts are far from over, with the University of Western Sydney (UWS) announcing that over 50 academic jobs and several subjects, including the entire Economics degree, will be cut in 2013.

Students from across the six campuses of UWS launched a campaign and rallied in response on November 21, despite the cuts being announced during the middle of exam period - clearly an attempt to limit the ability of students to organise major responses to condemn the management in the way that they have at other universities throughout 2012.

But so long as student struggles to defend and expand our education remain swept up into student election campaigns, disconnected and unable to link up with campaigns against neoliberalism in other areas of society, the well-organised campaign by the neoliberal ideologues will continue to hold the upper hand.

Students from across Australia gathered at the ANU in Canberra in September for the EduFactory conference to discuss the wave of attacks coming down. The second EduFactory! conference is being held at the University of Sydney over the ANZAC day long weekend 2013, to discuss national education policies and to organise campaigns for the year. Anyone interested in standing up for free, well-resourced public education should attend and get involved in the struggle.

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