Prof. Davis, I Read Your Letter…

Monday, 26 May, 2014

Illustration by Lynley Eavis

While the Liberal government is spending billions of dollars on fighter jets, our higher education system is facing the biggest funding cuts in 20 years. In response to the prospective cuts, University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis sent an email to all staff and students on 28 April, calling for debate about who should pay for higher education.

In his email, the VC endorsed student scholarships for the disadvantaged instead of fully funded public education. It is notable that Davis has been working hand-in-hand with some of Australia’s most right-wing education philosophers for some time now. Andrew Norton, author of the policy document for the Liberals’ cuts, worked as a policy adviser to Vice-Chancellor Davis for many years. Given these close connections, it is disingenuous of the VC to imply that debate about who should pay for education is really invited.

It is surmised that the Abbott government aims to cut $2.3 billion of funding to higher education, resulting in different effects on wealthier universities compared with those that are smaller, less wealthy or rural. Most of the vice-chancellors at elite Group of Eight universities welcome the changes being posed by the government. University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Warren Bebbington (who moved there from his position at the University of Melbourne) favours the introduction of private, US-style colleges to boost competition and “better cater for the varied needs of students”. His words echo almost exactly Minister for Education Christopher Pyne’s recommendation at London’s Policy Exchange education forum. According to Pyne Australia has much to learn from the US, which had made going to undergraduate college a “rite of passage”.

The US has a system of teaching-only undergraduate colleges that offer only Bachelor degrees. However, many academics have long regarded higher education as an integrated system where research and teaching are inextricably linked. This false division between undergraduate and graduate schools, as in the US system, is a means to continue exploiting a casualised workforce of PhD students and graduates who work long hours, for little pay and without any security of tenure. The Australian noted, “In 2013, estimated casuals rose 17.4 per cent to 22,958 full-time equivalent staff, the biggest increase since 2010, when partial deregulation of student places began to fuel growth. Last year, casuals accounted for more than 18 per cent of total staff”. The shortsightedness of cheap undergraduate education is short-changing students and underpaying academics.

In his email, the Vice-Chancellor tells us that we are fortunate we don’t have to pay in advance for education—never mind the debt that may tail us for life. The email supports handing out scholarships for education, rather than a public education system. This is misleading: only the large, wealthy universities will have the fee-base to support poor students.

The VC poses a false dichotomy in suggesting that students who have signed a petition to oppose fee increases are only interested in the cost of their own courses and not in financial aid for the disadvantaged. It does not follow that an increase in fees will automatically create a more equitable system. The category of the financially disadvantaged is not yet determined, but could exclude most students whose parents earn moderate incomes.

There is a dire need to oppose the systemic trend in making students pay more for education.  Being a very charming man, the VC undoubtedly had warm conversations with the Council Fellows and student representatives. His approach nevertheless is a user-pay neoliberal model, which will harm students.

The one thing a university education should teach us is to not simply accept the appearance of things, but to question and challenge the underlying concepts. The VC’s email leaves out the most important underlying concept of all. While it is not inevitable that fees must be raised to keep up the quality of education, it is necessary that higher education and TAFE are saved by the government’s investment in public education. After all, if we give away education, along with health and welfare, what is there for those fighter jets to defend?