RMIT Orientation Carnivale - Full Fees
Since the 1970's the Student union has persistently fought for greater public access to and greater government funding of education in Australia. Although the numbers of people accessing education has increased significantly the funding and resourcing of Universities has failed to keep up pace.
Successive ALP and Coalition Governments have eroded the funding level to University, creating the climate for them to be able to 'justify' the introduction of tuition fees to be paid by students. First it was introduction full fees for international students, then postgraduate students, and finally last year, the Coalition Government allowed and encouraged the charging of full fees up to 25% of domestic undergraduate places at Universities.
The Student Union strongly believes that education should be publicly funded and that all people should have the right to participate in higher education. The Student Union opposes any system in which wealth determines access to University.
The Student Union maintains that significant numbers of people are already affected by University fees, and it has greatly skewed the participation in higher education of students from: low socio-economic backgrounds; with disabilities; from rural and isolated areas; students from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB); and; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders students. The introduction of full fees, to undergraduate places will move us one step closer to a society in which only the rich and privileged can participate in Higher Education.
The fight against domestic undergraduate full fees at RMIT. The Federal Governments decision to deregulate the undergraduate fee market and allow Universities to enrol up to 25% of its students on a full fee basis met with significant opposition from not only the education sector, but also the general community in 1997 and 1998. In particular, with RMIT's introduction of full fees for domestic undergraduate students, we witnessed a level of student and staff activism never before seen at RMIT.
In 1997, there were demonstrations, rallies, marches on and around campus, pickets, Staff Stop Work meetings, regular disruptions to normal activities, a 19 day occupation and an unprecedented University wide staff student referendum, all in an attempt to persuade RMIT not to introduce domestic undergraduate fees. In 1998 we have witnessed on going discontent. RMIT has continued to be plagued by protests and dissent on campus. RMIT management continues to be operating 'under siege' regularly engaging increased security and implementing 'campus shut downs' whenever a State or Nation Wide rally/march takes place in the city. So significant were the activities and actions surrounding this decision, the Vice Chancellor chose to dedicate his opening statement in the RMIT 1997 Annual Report to this issue. "There has been a great deal of attention to the
RMIT Council's decision to allow fee-paying domestic students in undergraduate award courses from 1998. The result of the Staff and Student Referendum confirmed that the University community, like the Australian public at large, is strongly supportive of a properly funded tertiary education system, and, if given the choice, would prefer that universities were not forced to accept fee-paying students to compensate for shrinking government funds."
Opponents of the domestic undergraduate fee paying policy, such as the Student Union, contend that this policy and initiative should be rejected on the grounds of likely adverse effects on access and equity, course quality, including staff, infrastructure and resource consequences. Furthermore, we have maintained that, any success in the implementation of local undergraduate full fees, will be used by the government to further erode public funding to higher education. Proponents of the policy maintained that RMIT could 'ill afford' to ignore this financial opportunity, that funding will be used for additional staffing and resources, that this will enhance RMIT's competitiveness in the market place and that there is unlikely to be any negative impact on access and equity.
Although the University Council acknowledged that there was strong opposition from a significant number of Staff and Students to this policy, particularly due to concerns about the impact of the policy in equity and quality of education. They chose to ignore the opinions of the community, it is there to serve, but rather, followed the federal government down the road to the destruction of the Australian Higher Education sector and resolved, that from 1998 onwards, RMIT would sell up to 12.5% of its undergraduate places on a full fee basis. Courses fees are between $12,000 to $16,600 per year, depending on the course. Courses span over a three to five year period. Students enrolling in Architecture on the full fee basis can expect to pay in excess of $70,000 for a degree.
In order to appease some of the concerns raised by opponents, in particular because of, the impact these concerns were having on the RMIT and broader community, RMIT council resolved that this policy be subject to a stringent monitoring, reporting and review process during 1998. RMIT was to use the experiences obtained during 1998 to determine the market strength, and any affects on academic quality, access or equity, the administrative and infrastructure implications, and provide quarterly reports to Council. A review of RMIT's decision's was to be made in June (1 998) in order to determine whether RMIT should be offering full fee places in 1999.
No review ever took place. Other than general student numbers, Council did not receive quarterly reports on the issues specified and the only report to Council with any real detail was done so following a submission by the Student Union in October 1998 which was highly critical of RMIT's non existent monitoring and review process. The Student Union's submission recommended that Council overturn its decision to charge undergraduate full fees.
The only 'significant' piece of information provided by RMIT management confirmed the assertions of many opposed to user pays education: that full fee entry is not an option for many Australians. A total of 43 EFTSU (effective full time student units) enrolled in 1998 at RMIT. Of the 43 (EFTSU) enrolled, only three were from low socio-economic backgrounds and 2 were students with disabilities. There were no rural students or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders students enrolled. No information was provided regarding NESB statistics - we are left assuming there were no NESB enrolments. And although 18 (41 %) of the 43 students were female, this compares very badly to the 51 % access rate for the rest of RMIT courses.
Despite the obvious deplorable results, RMIT dismissed this as statistically insignificant and not a matter for concern. The Student Union and many others within the RMIT and broader community perceived these results as an indication of things to come, if we continue to travel down this path of exclusionism on the basis of ones wealth, or access to wealth.
Council rejected the Student Union submission on the grounds of financial necessity.
Even without undergraduate full fees, students were struggling under the burden of education associated costs. Coupled with the inadequacies in student financial support through Austudy, it is not surprising that studies have found that people are being deterred from entering university on financial grounds. It is also clear that up-front fees massively discriminate against students from recognised equity groups participating in education.
Since 1989, when the Government introduced arrangements to permit institutions to charge full fees for postgraduate courses, the impact has been devastating for equity groups. In the concluding statements made by the National Board of Employment, Eduction and Training in its report on 'The Effects of the Introduction of Fee-Paying Courses on Access for Designated Groups'(1996) found that all equity groups were under represented, and, that such under representation is found to be independent not only of field of study but also the level of the course, and whether the student is part-time or full time.
All of these experiences confirm that upfront full fees are an impediment to equity groups and subsequently the higher education sector as a whole becomes inaccessible. The RMIT Student Union believes that decisions which blatantly deny access to education, or disadvantage certain students to engage in study, affect not only the students concerned but society as a whole. A massive increase in fees would only increase these inequities as logically - only those who could afford these fees will take up the option of a full fee paying place.
It's obvious to many, that the major problem in the education sector is inadequate public funding. The introduction of differential HECS coupled with the lowering of the repayment threshold and upfront fees for undergraduate and postgraduate courses have made higher education unattainable for many.
Government funding of higher education declined by 35% between 1983 and 1995. This has been compounded by the Federal Government cuts to the sector (over $800 in 4 years): increases to the level of HECS; the introduction of differential HECS with increases of between 35 to 125% to some courses; and the lowering of the HECS repayment threshold to $20,700. These moves have already had a detrimental affect on the number of students applying for a University place, with a fall in student demand for University places over the past 2 years. In particular, RMIT has experienced a fall in enrolments for Applied Sciences and Engineering, two courses attracting the higher HECS rate. Clearly students are deterred from entering into courses with higher costs.
During 1999 the RMIT Community will continue its fight for greater public funding to higher education, and, against, the continuing invasion of our education system by user pays mechanism of access. If you're interested get involved in the Student Union's Welfare and Education Collective.
Research and Information Officer
RMIT Student Union
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