Hundreds of student activists gathered in RMIT’s Alumni Courtyard on Wednesday to oppose the Federal Government’s nearly $3 billion in higher education cuts.
The Government says the cuts are necessary to fund massive reforms in the public school system.
The rally was attended by Greens MP Adam Bandt, and he told Catalyst the Government should hit big miners – not the tertiary system – for cash.
“You don’t make Australia smarter by cutting university funding, and you don’t make it fairer by putting students further in debt while Gina Rinehart gets let off the hook.
“Being in government means having the guts to stand up to powerful interests on behalf of the public.
“That means saying to big miners, ‘We’ll make you pay the tax treasury recommended,'” he said.
National Tertiary Education Union President Jeannie Rea said the $900 million in cuts to university funding would result in less staff and less courses.
“We’re in a pretty good place for a university system that is still world class, but its only through the commitment of the staff and the students.
“Now we’ve been told there’s going to be further cuts, even though they pulled out $500 million intended for research just last year.
“And they call it an ‘efficiency dividend’ because that’s a sort of nasty, hypocritical way of saying you can’t trust academics and public servants and there’s always something to cut.
“Well, there’s not.”
The rally moved through RMIT’s City campus before marching along Swanston Street and up Bourke Street to Parliament House.
The group stopped at the intersection and sat on the road, briefly disrupting city trams.
Protesters sit at the intersection of Swanston and Bourke streets. Photograph by Andrei Ghoukassian.
What cuts are we talking about?
Here’s an explainer:
On April 11 the new Minister for Tertiary Education, Dr Craig Emerson, announced savings from the higher education sector to help pay for the recommendations made in the Gonski review.
Student Start-up Scholarships (SSS) will be converted to a loan scheme, saving $1.2 billion. SSS were introduced by the Labor Government in 2010 to help students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – afford the living costs of higher education.
Students currently on support payments receive a $1,025 lump sump at the beginning of each semester. This is to help cover expenses such as books, stationary, computers and/or software, and travel.
These payments will now take the form of a HECS style loan which must be paid back when the student earns income above threshold levels.
The Government will remove $900 million dollars from higher education funding through ‘efficiency dividends’, i.e. cuts.
The Government will save a further $229 million by removing the 10 per cent up-front discount for fee loan repayments. In 2011 the discount was reduced from 20 per cent.
Treasurer Wayne Swan also announced a $520 million dollar saving from capping tax deductions for work related self-education expenses to $2,000 per annum.
The Australian Medical Association released a statement saying, “A GP attending … workshops can face combined costs of over $3000. Many doctors will undertake more than once course a year in order to maintain and improved their qualifications.”
Watch the Minister for Tertiary Education announcing the changes:
Hovig Melkonian, Welfare Officer at the National Union of Students, is currently campaigning for an increase to Youth Allowance and the extension of Austudy to those under 22 years old.
“To see cuts come through and Scholarships having to be repaid by students is unfortunate. The current funding is inadequate, and there needs to more funding – not cuts.
“When you’re in university is when you need assistance.”
The President of the RMIT Student Union, James Michelmore, believes more debt is a big disincentive for people considering a university education.
“I think it’s going to deter more students from considering university as an education option.
“Students are already put off by the concept of debt, and to increase that debt by six to twelve thousand dollars will send more students with low socio-economic backgrounds away from higher education.
“It also opens the door for the transformation of other allowances – such as Youth Allowance and Abstudy – to loan schemes.
“With a Liberal government looking likely, it’s not something you want to be opening the door to,” he said.
Michelmore says while the Union supports the recommendations made by the Gonski review, hitting the tertiary sector was not the way to fund it.
“While we support the Gonski reforms, we need to send a clear message to Canberra that we’re not happy with these cuts.
“Although the Labor Government has increased tertiary funding by over 50
per cent since 2007, we had a 34 per cent increase in student intake. By the time you index that, it’s a very small increase per student.”
Coalition Shadow Minister for Education and Research Brett Mason released a statement on the Liberal Party website slamming the $900 million cuts to universities.
“Only a month and a half ago, the then Tertiary Education Minister Chris Bowen was trying to scare the pants off Vice-Chancellors at the Universities Australia conference saying that ‘universities are entitled to assume they will be at grave risk under a Liberal Government’ and that ‘the sector is entitled to conclude that university funding will be a prime target’ for the Coalition.”
From 1996-2004, the John Howard government cut $5 billion from university funding as 20,000 government funded university places were lost, while HECS fees rose by up to 122 per cent.
National Union of Students President Jade Tyrell said in a statement, “Overwhelmingly, the majority of students do not accept the Government announcements … because it means almost every student will feel the impact of the strain placed on universities, as well as the reduced support for the upfront cost of learning.”
Andrei Ghoukassian with David Ross