The Fight for Education

12 October 2020

The cost of Law, Commerce and Humanities degrees is set to increase by up to 113 per cent after the Coalition struck a deal with the Centre Alliance party, which passed the Job-Ready Graduates package through the Senate on Thursday 8 October.

The bill is aimed at reducing fees for courses that align with the Coalition’s national priorities, such as Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Education. To subsidise these reductions, the cost of Social Studies, Behavioural Science, Communications and other humanities courses will increase by 113 per cent, while Commerce, Law and Economics degrees will be hiked by 28 per cent.

University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Education Public Officers Noni Bridger and Charlie Joyce say the bill may result in further cuts to University of Melbourne casual staff—at least 450 of whom have already lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The bill will only make this worse. It does not contain provisions to save a single job, but still increases university places,” Bridger and Joyce told Farrago. They added that a jump in university places would usually be a good thing, but cuts to casual staffing will result in fewer tutors to teach more students.

“This will push up class sizes even more and may shrink contact hours that staff can have with students due to their increased workloads.”

“This will mean even worse quality of teaching due to overworked staff, even fewer subject choices, even larger classes and even worse student services from the University.”

At a Government inquiry in September this year, Mark Warburton, a member of the University’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, raised concerns about the bill impacting course quality and exacerbating financial difficulties associated with COVID-19.

Questions have also been raised over whether the package will incentivise students to study the courses with reduced fees. UMSU submitted to the Government inquiry modelling by the Grattan Institute, suggesting that, “even though students already can save money by choosing certain courses, they do not typically decide on this basis.”

Furthermore, the bill will deny HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP access to students who fail more than 50 per cent of their first year subjects, a move that has been criticised by students and politicians alike.

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie called the policy “favourable to rich kids,” saying, “focusing on first-year failures just bakes in disadvantage.”

In a statement on their Facebook page, UMSU Education condemned Centre Alliance’s decision to vote in favour of the bill.

“Amidst a global pandemic, an economic collapse and a crisis in the university sector, the government has chosen now to push through these damaging changes—to punish students while they were down, rather than giving them a helping hand.”

The decision comes despite student protests at Parliament House, as well as on University campuses across the country. The No Cuts at Unimelb group, an official campaign between the National Tertiary Education Union and UMSU, have scheduled an online rally on 14 October, where students and staff hope to pass a vote of no confidence in vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell.

No Cuts at Unimelb have also organised a socially distanced Campus Day of Action on 20 October, the day after COVID-19 restrictions are set to be partially relaxed. UMSU’s Bridger and Joyce told Farrago that they will continue fighting on and offline.

“As the Victorian lockdown lifts, we must begin to build this movement, holding protests, rallies and stunts. We must not be afraid to confront the power structures that have created the situation we now face.”

The Job-Ready Graduates package is set to return to the Lower House in the coming weeks, where the Coalition has secured the votes needed for it to pass.

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