Tony Abbott… Not my PM #4 – Higher Education Private Sector Unleashed

TonyAbbottteesThis is a return to my mini-series articulating the areas/reasons why I believe Tony Abbott is destroying Australia and is thus an unsuitable Prime Minister. To date, the following articles have formed the basis of this series:

  1. Federal budget 2014
  2. Stop the Boats
  3. Repeal the Carbon Tax
  4. Higher Education Private Sector Unleashed (this article)
  5. International Diplomacy Fail

Federal Budget 2014 has had a number of reforms that will affect the wider education policy area as a whole. Collectively, they form a disparate and incoherent message to the Australian community. The reforms are:

  • Deregulation of funding, a disguised form of cutting funding to universities in that the cost gap the lack of government funding creates will be plugged by individual instituions
  • $820M pa over three years of financial assistance to selected students (undergraduate courses)
  • Reduction of up to 20% in government funding of new students’ course fees, including the removal of load fees attached to FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP, which are the two existing schemes (previously known as HECS – the Higher Education Contribution Scheme)

As the title I coined for this article suggests, the collective result of these reforms will unleash the private/free market aspirations of our educational institutions. The case has been debated in the past whether market forces should be allowed to control the education sector of society here in Australia. Whilst the Liberal-led coalition believes in free market economics, a responsible government will understand that regulation and free market forces should not apply to all areas of society.

Firstly, when examining the deregulation impact, it should be highlighted that the biggest changes will affect our domestic students. To get an idea of the magnitude of changes in store, we only have to compare the current disparity between the “unregulated” fees charged to international students compared to domestic students. According to the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU, this disparity is currently about a factor of 2.5 – 3 times. That is, international fees are roughly 2.5-3 times higher than domestic FEE-HELP subsidized fees. Importantly, the concept of HECS remains intact so at least accessibility will not be hampered too much. However, whilst accessibility remains relatively untouched, without any government cap on the amount of student debt that can be accumulated, some students may suffer from debilitating and unsustainable debt. Stories today from the US education system exist where students remain impoverished by the sheer scale of debt that they incur as a student.

The debt and repayment factor is also an existing issue within the US education system, which serves as an example of where Australian society will end up given the direction that the Abbott government desires to have us take. The high level of debt required will naturally deter some students and feeds into the whole debate on whether the cost of education is bearable for students who graduate and remain tied down by massive debts.

Whilst strictly falling within the health series of budget reforms, the $7 Medicare co-payment included the bulk ($5) being channeled to a medical research future fund. It remains to be seen if this new research fund will be additional to existing research-designated funding.

When considered in the wider context of other budgetary measures and reforms (the cuts to welfare payments and new work-for-the-dole requirements), the general message that Tony Abbott is championing is one of negativity. His broad intention to achieve economic growth as the way to power Australia forward comes at a high cost to the area of education. Education has been traditionally recognised as a key future growth pillar of nation building. The long term view of investments made into the education sector of Australia will ensure long term economic growth. In light of these short-term changes, more long-term damage will be inflicted up on Australia.

The Abbott government’s Education Minister is a further reflection of the lack of competency prevalent across the Liberal Party and Coalition government. Christopher Pyne’s blind allegiance to Tony Abbott and adamant pursuit of these education economic policies have resulted in student protests in recent times. In one sense, the budgetary measures announced in May are a systemic attack against the young adult population of Australia. Not only will costs go up in the long term, but previous safety nets that helped to cushion and enable the transition from secondary school to university, and then university to working life are now also being trimmed back. To argue that these measures need to be introduced now to achieve a balanced and manageable budget is an argument which runs thin.

Whilst the supposedly positive benefit from the budget re-balancing of education funding and priorities is in favour of research, the reality is that the Abbott Government is trying to pull a fast one on the Australian community. This position is based on the context of Tony Abbott’s war against Science (we have no Minister for Science) and Climate Change (a well known climate change skeptic not only is the incumbent Minister, but the PM takes advice from individuals who hold similar views of climate change denial). It has been observed that the CSIRO, as the Australian Government’s peak research body has also been subjected to a $140M funding reduction over the next four years. If anything, the evidence suggests that Tony Abbott is attempting to redefine Australia as anything but a knowledge nation. This is already on top of our poor international standing – where Australia already is behind the rest of the world when it comes to investment in R&D relative to our economic output and GDP.

Given the pre-election promise of “no cuts to education”, this budget breaks that pledge in almost every regard. Whilst Chris Pyne is the Federal Minister for Education, his stance and position is really only a reflection of the group think and conformity prevalent within the Liberal Party, which takes its direction from its leader – Tony Abbott. Just as the other issues of the Budget, stopping the boats and climate change/carbon tax have shown, Tony Abbott is the one ultimately calling the shots within his Cabinet and government ministry.

The latest developments from around 24 August, where the Abbott Government has dug itself further into the budget fiasco with threats to cutting general University research funding demonstrates how incredibly short-minded and incompetent the Government truly is. That the Government would even consider this drastic course of action shows the extent to which they would ransom our nation’s future and reputation. The irreparable damage that cuts to university research funding would inflict would only harm Australia’s future and interests. All Group of 8 Universities would suffer given they all carry the bulk of research funding grants, and the economic pillar of international students studying here in Australia would have a consequential impact.

It it this latest action and position that the present Government takes that demonstrates why they must be removed at the soonest opportunity – either via a double dissolution election or at the next 2016 election. Given the present voter sentiment, the Abbott Government would be swiftly removed from office. Should a double dissolution election eventuate, the threshold for winning a Senate seat is halved so parties like Palmer United will undoubtedly pick up more seats at the expense of the National Party.

I for one welcome the opportunity to tell Tony Abbott exactly how I feel by voting him and his mob out of power. Having watched Q&A just this Monday (25 August), I was impressed by the eloquence and intellect of Gareth Evans, former MP for Holt/Foreign Minister. Together with Q&A panelist Paul Kelly, Editor of The Australian, they lamented how the political system has changed over the last decade. Tony Abbott is in part a politician who is a product of the system. However, as this series of articles has hopefully demonstrated, his brand of politics, coupled with his right-wing views, has made for a most undignified and boorish excuse who cannot rise above the pettiness of the system. This his first year in power has been consistent insofar as his performance as Opposition Leader, where the Coalition opposition impeded the then Rudd/Gillard government as much as possible.