On Wednesda,y 16 April university students across Sydney protested the federal government’s $2.8 billion cuts to the higher education sector. The protest was part of the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) National Day of Action, with rallies at UNSW, UTS and a subsequent demonstration amongst Sydney University students outside of Sydney MP Tanya Plibersek’s office.
The cuts to Australian universities include a 2% ‘efficiency dividend’, taking $900 million out of the sector, the removal of the 10% discount on the payment of HECS-HELP fees upfront, the conversion of student start up scholarships to HECS loans to save a further $1.2 billion and the removal of tax deduction status for educational expenses.
This reallocation of federal funding has been seen as a fundamental failure to recognise the education sector as a holistic enterprise, as tertiary cuts will limit graduate outcomes and access, entrenching current educational equality.
Rudi Bremer, the UTS Student Association’s Indigenous Officer, saw that the proposed changes, especially to disadvantaged students on AUSTUDY would “open the gates theoretically but ensure that students are too stressed and too poor to enter them.”
For disadvantaged students, the loss of a range of income support measures and the difficulty of completing full-time study requirements will be compounded by the inevitable withdrawal of existing university services.
Student protesters were outraged over the possibility of further deterioration within a tertiary education sector which has seen over-crowding, casualisation or reduction of staff and courses cut.
As a percentage of GDP, Australia is 25th out of 29 advanced economies in terms of public investment in universities. The recent Bradley review of Australian higher education recommended a minimum 10% increase in university base funding.
The Sydney University contingent of the protests was especially critical of the way federal ‘efficiency’ mandates are expected to be exploited by Micheal Spence to affirm existing funding discrepancies in the denial of increased wages or permanent staff. “He’s going to turn around, pocket his million dollars a year, and cut the staff, cut the courses and cut the quality of our education,” one student proclaimed.
The student demonstration outside Tanya Plibersek’s office also portrayed a growing dissatisfaction with the Labor government inability to fulfill the expectations of the left-leaning constituencies who placed them in power. “This is not what we want to see form a Labor government that is about equity and access, reportedly,” President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Jade Tryell said.
If the Labour government continues to split the left vote with policies antithetical to their ideological base, Australian students may be forced to find out how much more excessive.