Showdown: which party is best for students?

We asked four factional bigwigs to tell us which party (if any) will best represent student interests.

Art by Khanh Tran.

Labor: Grace Hu

Grace Hu is Vice President of Sydney University ALP Club and is a member of the Australian Labor Party.

The university funding system has been in crisis for years. The old block-grant funding model, a type of capped funding, meant that the government allocated Commonwealth Supported Places to universities regardless of student demand. As such, there were always students who missed out.

The Labor demand-based model, introduced in 2008 shortly after Kevin Rudd won the election and implemented in 2012, allowed universities to enrol students and then get funding based on student demand. This led to a dramatic increase in students enrolling in university. 

Around 2018, the Turnbull Coalition government scrapped this model because they considered it too expensive. 

Base funding — being the combination of Commonwealth contribution and student contribution per place — covers essential university functions such as research, admin and community engagement. This means when there is not enough funding per place, as has been the case, direct funding for teaching goes down. The proportion of funding per university place spent on teaching has fallen from 94% to 85%. If you feel like your education quality hasn’t been that great recently, this is why. 

The Liberals have announced little for education this election. They’ve already implemented their 2019 election promise of the Job Ready Graduates package (JRG). Besides the fact that this hasn’t fixed the crisis, and the sector has made it clear that this funding is insufficient, this was politically perfect for the Liberals. The problem every government faces is that the Commonwealth contribution is incredibly expensive to maintain, students always want more university places, and degrees are also oversaturating the market — meaning return on investment is increasingly dubious.

JRG presents the neoliberal fallacy: more for less. The government gets to cap funding to prevent cost blowout, but say they’ve created more student places because higher demand courses receive less Commonwealth contribution. This means the university can offer more places with their fixed total Commonwealth contribution. This was all achieved without increasing funding and saves the government a billion dollars per year. The underlying rhetoric of JRG and the Liberal government is: yes, more students can go to university — if they pay for it themselves.  

It is mind-blowing that after a decade of crisis caused by insufficient base funding and numerous attempts to curb the expense of Commonwealth contributions, the Greens can look past this and consider reimbursing past student contributions as an important policy for this election. Current students should not rally around this issue first because, unlike the graduated, our education quality and Commonwealth contribution are still being determined. 

While Labor has yet to propose an alternate funding model, its announcement of 20,000 student places costing nearly $500 million shows a commitment to increasing funding for the sector. While there is obviously room to give more people the opportunity to go to uni, this 2.6% increase on the current 746,000 places is sizeable considering existing participation in education or training, with 31% of 20-24 year olds in a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and a further 14% in a Certificate or Diploma, as well as Labor’s increases for TAFE. You have to remember, when the Coalition told us JRG would create 30,000 university places, they genuinely thought 30,000 would be considered an impressive increase.

Historically, the Labor Gillard government gave us the demand-driven model. This increased total Commonwealth contribution by 50% and student places went up by 146,000 or 34% over Labor’s term. That increase is still equivalent to 20% of today’s current CSP. 

Only a Labor government will deliver the funding model we want to see, which is an equitable increase to Commonwealth contribution per student and more student places. This is important for education quality and access to university. Students should preference Labor first for this reason — we need a strong, confident, progressive government to deliver substantial change to a sector that has been continually wrecked by funding failure.    

The Greens: Drew Beacom

Drew Beacom is a member of Grassroots, convenor of USyd Greens and is campaigning for the Greens in the Federal Election.

Young people and students are often neglected in federal politics. Under the last decade of Liberal ‘leadership’, we have seen conditions for students deteriorate. Young people are feeling more and more helpless in the face of rising rent and house prices, a lack of action on climate change, stagnant wage growth, and the erosion of workers’ rights. Students bear the brunt of a society that is becoming more and more unequal. The Greens are fighting for students this election and we are bringing policies to the table that will improve the lives of young people. 

The past decade of austerity from the LNP Government has seen tertiary education decimated. Tertiary education in Australia has fallen victim to death by a thousand cuts, with 2020’s Job-Ready Graduates Package simply the latest attack on the system. The Greens will reverse these cuts, increase funding, abolish all student debt and reintroduce free university and TAFE. This will allow students from all backgrounds to study at our universities, assisting in the tackling of inequality and allowing young people to pursue their interests without having to face crippling debt. These policies are putting students first and ensuring that every Australian has the right to access world-class higher education. 

Furthermore, students shouldn’t be forced to work 20+ hour weeks in order to make ends meet. Students should not have to sacrifice grades and relationships in order to support themselves while they study. This deepens inequality as those who come from low socio-economic backgrounds have to decide between hitting the books or paying rent, choices those from wealthier backgrounds aren’t forced to consider. The Greens are committed to supporting all students financially, removing the current independence test and ensuring that all young people (studying or looking for work) receive a guaranteed income of $1300 fortnightly. 

The Greens are committed to fighting for young people — not only on campuses but also at home. At present, young people are locked out of the Australian housing market as governments reward investors and push the commodification of housing, driving up prices. The Greens want to make the dream of homeownership a reality once again, building one million new, publicly-owned houses, 125,000 of which will be dedicated to first home buyers. Furthermore, the Greens are fighting for renters by capping rent increases and removing ‘no-grounds’ evictions, a win for students who should be able to live near their campuses in secure and affordable accommodation

There is no reason that arbitrary barriers should be placed on the types of healthcare you can access. Mental health conditions disproportionately impact younger people and no one should be denied treatment and support due to financial barriers. The last time the Greens held the balance of power, we expanded Medicare to cover dental for children under 12. This time we will be expanding Medicare to cover dental and mental health for Australians of all ages, allowing everyone access to healthcare.

Climate action has been the leading issue for young people for many years now, seen notably in the rise of School Strike 4 Climate and the student environment movement. The Greens are committed to ensuring young Australians can live on a healthy, thriving planet. To make this a reality, the Greens are leading both major parties on climate action, favouring science over donations. We are committed to 100% renewable energy by 2030, investing in the just transition of coal communities and in renewable infrastructures. The Greens will also ban all new fossil fuel projects, phasing out coal mining by 2030, and will end the revolving door between the fossil fuel sector and federal politics, banning fossil fuel donations, and ensuring lobbying is transparent and public.

So in this election vote for students, vote for equity, vote for climate action, vote [1] Greens.

The Liberal Party: Nicholas Comino

USU Board Director and campus Moderate Liberal Nicholas Comino committed to writing this section of the piece 10 days before it was due, engaging with the editorial team throughout. In true Liberal fashion, he did not follow through on his promise and chose not to let us know until the day it was required.

The only other Liberal contacted said they would not write it, in part because they “don’t believe” the Liberals are the best party for young people and students.

In lieu of his submission, we have summarised all that could be said anyway: poopoo weewee etc.

Socialist Alternative: Deaglan Godwin

Deaglan Godwin is a member of Socialist Alternative, USyd SRC Education Officer and will not be campaigning for any major political party.

The current Federal Election should be the most important in decades. The climate crisis is much worse today than in 2019. The pandemic has seen more than 4,000 people in Australia die this year alone, yet we are heading towards a situation where testing positive for covid will be a normal, routine part of life. At the same time, rent across Sydney has increased by 21% in the last year, and general inflation is forecast to reach 4.25%. 

The two major parties promise ordinary people the same thing: zilch. Labor and Liberal agree on continuing coal exports past 2050 and increasing Australia’s military spending. Anthony ‘I’m not woke’ Albanese is at pains to make sure everybody knows he can be just as socially conservative as Morrison, proudly declaring in last week’s debate that Labor supported offshore detention and boat turn-backs for refugees. Labor spokespeople have made it clear that they want to govern for employers. The Liberals deserve to be smashed, but Labor is no alternative. 

Some would argue that the Greens are a viable third option. Although it’s true that the Greens put out more progressive policies than Labor — opposing new coal mines, taxing the rich to fund free education, building social housing to end homelessness and putting dental and mental health services on Medicare. But these policies mean very little in practice. The problem is that the strategy of the Greens revolves around becoming a junior partner in a coalition with the ALP. 

The last time they were in this position was following the 2010 election. The Greens, despite their policies on paper, were unable to draw a line in the sand to end offshore processing or the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. The pressure of playing the parliamentary game meant that the Greens abandoned policies which would place people or the environment over profit. So while students are right to vote down parties which are open backers of a system which throws ordinary people under the bus, the Greens aren’t a real left alternative. This is because parliament is where the bosses are at their most powerful, and where workers and the oppressed are at their weakest. 

The key to actually winning what we want is fighting for our demands, not hoping that we’ll be able to vote them into reality. We’ve seen this play out before. For years, the Labor Party refused to legalise marriage equality, and the Greens were unable to make it a reality. Instead, it was mobilisations of tens of thousands of people that forced the Liberals to change the oppressive laws. Every win for ordinary people has been the result of such a battle. 

The key task of students and the organisations that represent them should be to build the capacity of the left to win these fights. Doing so means refusing to see elections as the key to creating change in society. Ultimately, capitalist power needs to be destroyed to win a world fit for humanity. For now, to paraphrase Howard Zinn, what matters most is not who is sitting in parliament, but who is ‘sitting in’ -— and who is marching and striking outside parliament. 

We have an opportunity to put this perspective into practice over the coming months. Staff at Sydney University are going out on strike in week 11, and again in week 13. If we want to see a better higher education system for both staff and students, we have to take up the fight where we’re strongest — standing in solidarity on the picket lines and at protests. 

We also need to be ready to protest and march beyond the gates of the university, regardless of who is elected. We can’t have a moment of despair if the Liberals are returned, or high expectations from a Labor-Greens majority. The fight against climate change, inequality and cuts to higher education demand this.