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USyd community rejects higher ed reforms

Georgia Behrens reports on the University of Sydney’s historic Town Hall meeting.

Staff, students and USyd alumni overwhelmingly spoke against the government’s proposed higher education reforms at last night’s “town hall meeting” on fee deregulation.

Twenty-six speakers, selected from large pool of applicants, presented their perspectives on tertiary funding changes, including fee deregulation, to an audience of more than 500 USyd community members, including Chancellor Belinda Hutchison and Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence.

The event was promoted by the University as part of its extended consultation process on how the University should deal with federal government changes to tertiary funding.

The evening began with presentations from Spence and Hutchison, both of whom were heckled by members of the Bust the Budget and Education Action groups arguing that the meeting was not a legitimate form of consultation.

MC Adam Spencer threatened to close the meeting down when SRC Education Officer Eleanor Morley refused to stop interrupting the Vice-Chancellor’s presentation, demanding to know why she hadn’t been allowed to speak at the event.

Spence insisted that he was prepared to listen to the USyd community’s perspective on the reforms, and would continue to consult before any changes were implemented.

Spence is a member of the Group of Eight (Go8), which has previously declared their unanimous support for fee deregulation.

Spence himself has only opposed fee deregulation for higher degrees by research, and elsewhere emphasized potential benefits to come from increased funds: “It is in everyone’s interests that our universities are as good as they can possibly be. But that requires money, and at the moment university teaching is underfunded. The system for funding higher education no longer works and something has to be done,” Spence wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this May.

Subsequent speakers included current and past student leaders, USyd graduates, and members of staff.

SRC President Jennifer Light argued that the reforms would entrench economic wealth as the primary means by which students would gain access to a USyd education.

“These reforms will lead to our university becoming one that is privileged, but not elite,” she said.

USU Board Director Edward McMahon put an informal motion to the meeting calling on all bodies of the university, including the Vice Chancellor, to campaign against the proposed reforms.

The motion was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the room.

“These cuts and reforms are being inflicted, ironically, upon my generation by the people who benefited form the more enlightened education policies of yesteryear,” McMahon said, referring to the free tertiary education policies of the Whitlam government.

USyd alumna and Executive Director of UN Women Australia Julie McKay spoke about the disproportionate impact the reforms would have on female students, and called on the University to establish a gender equality fund to counteract the higher education costs women would incur under the proposed system.

“I urge the University to invest in the education of women as a mechanism to drive economic growth and social equality,” McKay said.

Several other speeches conceded that deregulation was likely to occur irrespective of their opposition, but SUPRA Councillor and former Sydney University Liberal Club president Alex Dore was the only speaker to overtly support the reforms.

“This meeting has been organised as a partisan attack on the Abbott government,” Dore said in his speech, before arguing that tertiary students should not have their educations paid for by Australian taxpayers who hadn’t been to university.

The meeting was organised in response to a calls for a formal meeting of Convocation to discuss the proposed reforms.

Senate Fellows Andrew West, Verity Firth, Catriona Menzies-Pike and Patrick Massarani had been petitioning for a meeting of Convocation (a gathering of USyd’s alumni community) in the hope of mobilising the graduate community and persuading the University to challenge Pyne’s reforms.

The petition is believe to have being signed by several hundred USyd alumni. West told Honi that he still believes there should have been a meeting of Convocation, and any meeting with students should have been held alongside that alumni gathering.

It is believed that the “town hall” format was the result of a compromise reached between these petitioning Fellows and the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, both of whom had expressed aversion to the possibility of holding Convocation.

A number of students have expressed dissatisfaction with the form and content of last night’s meeting, with Morley referring to it as “a sham”.

It was reported this morning that Spence has travelled to Canberra alongside other Go8 vice-chancellors to lobby the government to pursue its plans to deregulate university fees in the face of overwhelming public opposition.