RMIT University

RMIT Orientation Carnivale - Privatisation

Why you should fight the privatisation of education?

Welcome to Australian education; a privatised system which commodities learning so that everything has a price but only a minority can afford it. A system which makes education a production line for compliant, capitalist ready workers, a de-regulated system in which the wealthy get one type of education and the rest don't get much. Finally a system which puts corporate greed before public need.

As students and workers we have a lot to be angry about. Instead of having free, publicly funded education which is available to anyone who wants to participate we are being forced to pay more and more for an education that is dictated by the needs of the labour market and which gives governments and private interests the power to train us, indoctrinate us to the capitalist system, and then finally exploit us as workers. The higher cost of education and its emphasis on user-pays will shut out those already disadvantaged and will only serve to perpetuate the power and wealth of those socially and economically privileged. Issues of access and equity however are not priorities of governments both Labor and Liberal who are embracing user-pays philosophies that rationalise (or ration), deregulate and privatise education. These concepts can be mystifying for most students, yet they're important to understand because they are having a real impact on your education.

User-Pays

The idea of user pays is that only those who use a service should have to pay for it. However, user-pays doesn't recognise that the whole of society benefits from having a highly educated population, and particularly from the sort of critical thinking that universities should be fostering. Moreover, statistics show that the projected income of tertiary graduates is not significantly higher and rarely outweighs the cost of education in a user-pays system.

User-pays principles have their roots in classical liberal economic theory and are based on the assumption that we are all separate, rational, self-interested individuals who pursue the profit motive in every aspect of our lives. As such education is treated as a private commodity in which only individuals benefit, when in reality it is a system which is more than ever before geared to make profits for the market.

Education is heavily linked to and influenced by the workings of the economy in a number of ways, for instance education helps aid capitalism by providing workers with certain skills, personality traits and attitudes. It's easier for the rich and powerful to keep their comfy places in society when we are taught to accept and obey the authority of the current system.

Fully publicly funded education in which the curricula is determined by public need rather than corporate greed is dangerous ground for governments. In the occurrence of such a system we might be taught to be much more questioning and critical, which is never a good thing for a system based on exploitation and oppression. In another sense education has an important role in the management of unemployment and work. It creates another divide in which workers have to compete with one another for the few jobs available during times of high unemployment. These are only a few of the reasons why governments and industry have a lot to gain from controlling who gets an education and the type of education it is.

They also gain a lot under a user-pays system when we pay as individuals and make education a privatised commodity. If we paid collectively, as a society, more people from disadvantaged backgrounds would have access to education and use it as a liberating force; however if we leave it to individuals, only people who are wealthy and powerful can access it so that inequities continue to be preserved. User-pays principles are therefore a political attack on public education and in a sense class war. It is the shift to economic rationalism and user pays philosophy which has allowed governments, both Labor and Liberal, to transform the education sector into more of an elitist, industry controlled, under-resourced and profit driven system.

For instance it was the Labor government that ended free education in this country and introduced up-front fees for international and post-grad students whilst also implementing the Higher Education Contribution Schemes (HECS). Following the Labor tradition of economic rationalism, the Liberal party mounted a vicious onslaught on the higher education sector. They cut hundreds of millions from the education budget and paved the way for further up-front fees whilst increasing HECS by up to 15-35% and lowering the repayment threshold to a meagre $20,700.

Both major parties use rhetoric of 'choice' and 'access' to rationalise the cuts and costly fees. It is however a contradiction in terms to, slash university operating budgets and reduce the number of government funded places and still maintain that such actions will provide students with more opportunities. Instead it restricts most people's choices and acts as a barrier to entry.

Barriers To University Access

It is important however not to look at fees and cuts as the only variables which act as a barrier to higher education. The whole primary and secondary education system is entrenched with injustice. The wealthy and privileged get better resourced schools and higher student-staff ratios whereas public school education is underfunded in real terms so that libraries are bare, facilities rundown, and staff are stressed out and over worked. Governments continue to exacerbate this situation by increasing private high school funding and scapegoating public schools for unemployment and other societal problems. Moreover universities (and especially RMIT) still have appalling equity records when it comes to disadvantaged groups access to higher education. The reason for this is because entry into higher institutions is still largely determined through year 12 results.

'Merit' based entry supposedly places everyone on a level playing field but is actually heavily biased. After all a migrant womyn, working long hours to support her family isn't on a an equal standing to a private school yuppie who can easily afford the best books, and help and spend as much time as they like on furthering their studies. Assessment is another way in which we are divided and socialised as self-interested, competing individuals. Rather than being encouraged to co-operate and to pursue education for the collective good we are indoctrinated into the whole capitalist ethos of competition and individualism.

Even if students from disadvantaged groups do make it into higher education they have to battle constantly in a system that explicitly works to shut them out. It's hard being a student when you are forced to put your studies second to earning a livable income, or when you find that you can only afford to buy one book for the semester or when you have to dodge inspectors because you can't afford train tickets or when you are reluctant to go to class because of racism...the list goes on.

Deregulation and corporate control of universities

On top of raising fees for students, universities are relying heavily on corporate funding. The thing to remember is that corporations do not fund education from the goodness of their heart, they have their own private agendas to pursue. As a result higher education institutions face more private sector control and profiteering.

At RMIT, the peak decision making body (University Council) has more than four times the number of corporate reps than student reps. As a result decisions made at RMIT reflect corporate interests rather than the needs of staff and students. The increased competition between universities for private sector funding has created the deregulation of education and has meant a greater emphasis on raising revenue rather than on teaching and learning. In such a situation educational values are subordinated to commercial interests. Lecturers, on top of teaching and research, are expected to raise money for their departments by selling their course to corporations. Once again competition for funding is not just between universities, but between departments and faculties within a university. As a result departments that are vocationally and industry orientated survive whereas courses that are arts based, critical and more concerned with learning for learning's sake are being cut out of existence.

Education is as a result being transformed into a system in which eventually everything will have a price put on it. The question is, how can one put a price on education dealing with the classics, philosophy, social theory etc? Deregulation also means that a greater divide will open up between the status and quality of education offered from different institutions. Elite, sandstone universities such as Melbourne University will be able to have their own highly profitable private companies because of the prestige associated with them whereas small and regional universities will not be able to compete in such an environment. In another sense the upper class who get the highest TER money can buy will be getting the best education in the elite universities, whereas the rest will be getting lower standards in institutions which will be crippled with funding shortages.

The privatisation of education through user-pay principles, deregulation and corporatisation, acts further to make universities the domain of the privileged and powerful. It creates enormous barriers of access and despite the rhetoric of 'choice', the real agenda is to shut out mass participation of education and to replicate the divide between the wealthy and oppressed. We however as students do have a choice as to whether we sit idly by as governments, university admin and corporations attack our education or whether we forge together and take action to defend and extend access and fight for publicly funded education. Don't be a drone for the capitalist system, get active and get involved in the Student Union Welfare and Education collective. Rise up and revolt, fight for free education for all.

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