Where to for Higher Education?

National Union of Students Education Officer, Max Murphy, writes about the future of higher education

The argument that students should have to pay in excess of $100,000 to go and get a degree is one that has been presented by our government over the past 3 years; and it is an argument they have decidedly lost. Australians don’t want middle and working class kids shut out of higher education and they don’t want kids who do succeed in getting their degree to be burdened with debt for the rest of their lives. So where to for higher education from here?

The mass public support for keeping universities accessible (over 70% of Australians are against fee deregulation) provides the ideal grounds to start laying down plans for what we want the sector to look like and how we are going to face the encroaching challenges for universities in the all-too-near future. The Foundation for Young Australians says that the youth of today are looking at a life with 5 career changes, at least 17 different jobs and where around 50% of the jobs we have now being totally obsolete. It goes without saying, but going back to university or TAFE regularly is going to become the norm in the near future. The answer to that is not making higher education unaffordable and inaccessible, but to have the best-funded universities we can, and to not deter people from retraining with inexhaustible debts over their head.

Unlike many political issues, Higher Education isn’t all that hard to get right. Complex issues like taxation, foreign relations, industrial relations etc, have a whole plethora of aspects that need to be tackled with extensive policy, but higher ed isn’t like that. It is really very simple; give higher education more funding, indeed, give it the funding it needs and deserves. Australia is so far behind the world when it comes to this. We’re ranked 33 out of 34 in the OECD for our public funding for tertiary education, with only 0.7% of our GDP devoted to it as opposed to the OECD average of 1.1%. The amount of funding we devote to something is surely an indicator of whether or not we see it as a priority, and it’s just not getting the attention it deserves. The entrenched narrative has been that kids from Hornsby and Mosman go to University, while the ones from Blacktown and Cabramatta go and get a trade or otherwise. This perception needs to end; 20 years from now every individual will need a tertiary qualification and the high-paying job that comes with it if they are to have any hope of tackling the housing affordability crisis, an uncertain economy and an untenable cost of living.

Now many a time has an old man from the North Shore come at me after a student demonstration and told me that I was “greedy”, “needed to stop complaining” or asked “why should my taxes be paying for your education?”. I can make countless economic arguments in favour of my case, such as; for every dollar you put into higher education, you get and extra $8 in tax revenue and an extra $21 into the economy or the fact that people with university degrees statistically end up having significantly higher incomes which means higher taxes which counteracts the money used to subsidise their degree. But there is ultimately one argument worth making. Education is a right, not a privilege. Education makes better people. It builds a smarter, more innovate society. Nobody should have to take into consideration a lifetime of debt when they choose to take up the opportunity of bettering their life through education. If Malcolm Turnbull was dead serious about jobs and growth he wouldn’t be cutting billions of dollars from universities but would be doing the exact opposite.

The past three years has seen students take to the streets to stop fee deregulation and again on August the 24th, students around the country will be turning out to demand that the government and the opposition listens to us and puts their “jobs of the future” rhetoric into action and demanding that they commit to more federal funding for higher education. 

Ours is the first generation since Federation where our standard of living will be worse off than the generation before us, and I can think of nothing better to curb that than keeping the door to opportunity that is higher education as wide open as possible.

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