Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Today by Nick Feik

The stupid country
Centre Alliance sells out universities

Image of Senator Stirling Griff at Parliament House today

Senator Stirling Griff at Parliament House today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image

Centre Alliance this morning announced that it has joined One Nation in supporting the Morrison government’s university funding “reform” package. 

As a result of Stirling Griff’s promised vote in the Senate, the legislation is almost certain to pass, and tens of thousands of students in study areas as popular as the humanities, law and economics will pay more than double the current rates for their university degree. Overall per-student funding from the government is also set to drop significantly, so that the same level of funding can cover the rising demand predicted among local students. 

A four-year degree will now cost around $58,000 for many disciplines. As shadow minister for education Tanya Plibersek said in response to the news: “Think about those kids. They’ve had the year from hell. They’re now being told that, in four years’ time, if they go to university, if they’re lucky enough to get a place, they’re going to be graduating with an American-sized university debt at a time when the unemployment market is the worst it’s been in decades. It’s absolutely cruel.”

What makes it worse: this is terrible legislation. It’s not just unfair and ill-timed, but it’s also likely to have the opposite effect to the one purported by Education Minister Dan Tehan and the government. The stated purpose of making some courses much more expensive than others is to drive students towards “job-ready” courses, such as science and engineering. Apart from there being no evidence that fee changes alter student choices about their future, the overall design of the package offers perverse incentives to universities. As Frank Bongiorno pointed out, universities will be able to charge twice as much for the courses that are cheap to teach (humanities, law etc), but less for courses that are expensive to teach (sciences etc). “Under the new arrangements,” writes Bongiorno, “universities will presumably have an incentive to boost their humanities enrolments.” 

This is all very strange indeed, as Bongiorno writes, but it may explain why Universities Australia, under massive pressure due to the decline in international enrolments, is officially supporting the legislation. It’s all about the dollars. (Although as University of Melbourne researcher Mark Warburton states, “the claim that this package will deliver 39,000 [extra] student places as early as 2023 is something of a mystery”. Where did it come from? And universities only get paid for the student places they deliver, so they may yet be short-changed.)

Bear in mind, too, that the government’s rationale of pushing students towards “job-ready” educations runs counter to the facts about employment outcomes: arts, economics and law graduates have very good prospects, more so than those from many of the courses that the government is trying to push. (On this logic, for example, it makes no sense at all to try to funnel students into agriculture. This is clearly a sop to the Nationals: the prospects for agriculture grads are not at all good.)

Combined with the fact that the government has deliberately excluded Australian public universities from the JobKeeper program, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the Coalition is happy to hobble the university sector, and has a particular hatred for those who study humanities. There have already been well over 10,000 jobs lost in the higher education sector, and this doesn’t even include casuals and sessional staff. 

We’ll see what the budget tonight brings, but don’t expect anything significant in this area: this legislation more or less guarantees that the sector will continue to be under-resourced. Nothing the government promises in research funding will come close to covering the estimated $22 billion hole in university revenues. 

Like Centre Alliance education spokesperson Rebekha Sharkie, most Coalition MPs received heavily subsidised university degrees. Sharkie, who called this very proposal – the one her party now supports – “grossly unfair” in June, has an arts degree. Guess what are the three most popular degrees among Liberal ministers? Arts, law and economics. Talk about pulling up the bridge after you’ve crossed the moat. Australians have a right to be disgusted, and this decision will stick to the Centre Alliance for years. They sold out a generation of students for a few pieces of silver – a couple of tiny amendments/bribes for South Australia. This article from the Adelaide Advertiser speculated on other possible motivations – personal ambitions – behind the sell-out.

Australia may once have been the lucky country (for some, anyway). If we continue to be run by second-rate people, we’ll be the stupid country before too long.

“It’s not an easy thing to do as a sovereign black woman to then swear allegiance to the Crown and the very people who caused great harm to this land and the people who belong to it.”

Lidia Thorpe today formally becomes the first Aboriginal senator to represent Victoria and the first federal Greens Aboriginal senator.

“Don’t be afraid of COVID.”

President Donald Trump has told Americans not to let COVID-19 “dominate” them and says he is “better” after being treated for the virus.

Jacqui Lambie fires up
The future of Australia’s universities hangs in the balance, with radical reforms to funding and student fees due to be voted on this week. The government has been negotiating furiously behind closed doors to pass its legislation through the Senate.

The number of people globally who may have been infected with COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization’s top emergencies expert.

“South Australia needed to be treated differently because we are a very small state.”

Education spokesperson Rebekha Sharkie confirms that the South Australian-based Centre Alliance has thrown its support behind the Coalition’s university funding changes, which will see future university students in disciplines such as law and the humanities pay up to 113 per cent more than current students.

The list

“Poet and songwriter Kev Carmody and I have been friends for more than 30 years. We’ve written songs together and meet up from time to time, but due to geography – he lives in country Queensland, I in Melbourne – much of our friendship is conducted over the phone. Every couple of months one of us calls the other. The start of our conversation is ritual. ‘Hello, it’s Kev from Queensland here,’ he says. ‘Hello, it’s Paul from Melbourne, here,’ I reply.”

“If there’s a disease whose symptoms are a complete lack of social energy coupled with a complete lack of knowing what the hell to do with yourself, you definitely have that disease. The weary days just keep on coming. You wonder if it’s just a variety of laziness in a darkish disguise. You wonder this thought out loud to your brother, a panelbeater who has worked at least 70 hours a week since the day he became an apprentice and who says, ‘Kaz, any mildly evolved human being has a tendency towards laziness.’ That distracts you for a few minutes.”

“More than 10,000 wealthy foreign investors have won special concessions to come to Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, leapfrogging other visa-holders and potentially pushing stranded Australians further back in the ‘queue’. The Home Affairs Department recently added business investor visa-holders to the categories of people who qualify for automatic exemptions from the inbound travel ban on non-Australians.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



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