Op-Ed: By university standards, the coalition gets a fail grade

5 May 2017

My university education has given me many things – hangovers, a mild caffeine addiction, approximately $20,000 in HECS debt. It’s given me life experience, expanded employment opportunities and professional skills too, I guess.

But perhaps the greatest, most enduring skill one acquires from university education is critical thinking – the ability to separate the erroneous from the enlightening. In other words, students like myself are taught to keenly detect bullshit. And bullshit is exactly what we saw when the Federal Government announced its new higher education policy.

On Monday, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced an entirely predictable variation of a familiar Coalition theme – universities will have less, and students will pay more, even when earning relatively little.

Birmingham’s justification for his policy package does not stack up by academic standards. In fact, if students like us used the same illogical, unacademic arguments in our essays as Simon Birmingham does defending his policies, we’d be lucky to scrape by with a “P”. Were his rhetoric a university assignment, I dare say, he might fail.

Firstly, Birmingham’s assertion that his policies are “measured, modest and balanced” relies entirely on narrow internal logic. The package is only modest compared to the Coalition’s previous attempt to sabotage higher education, where university fees would have been fully deregulated and students could have been charged infinite amounts for courses. Compared to the possible tripling or quadrupling of some course fees, an increase of between $2,000 and $3,600 for an average four-year course is more equitable. Yet for this package to be described as modest requires shifting the goalposts so that anything less than horrific constitutes modesty.

Birmingham also asserts that, unlike his predecessor, he cares about the “fairness and equity” of our higher education system. He wants to “preserve the integrity” of Australia’s “generous student loans”.  Yet to do so, he proposes making the system less equitable and less generous. Go figure.

In truly Orwellian doublespeak, “strengthening” Australian higher education actually means cutting its funding by approximately $380 million dollars. It also means requiring graduates to pay back debts even if they are earning only $42,000. As Leigh Sales described it on Monday’s 7:30, that is only “a bit over the base rate for a McDonald’s worker.” In academia, such linguistic trickery would be called misleading. In Canberra, it is routine.

The government would only be “preserving the integrity” of our “generous” system in a scenario with only two options: an underfunded, inequitable system, or the whole system coming apart at the seams. Yet this is a false dichotomy, which only arises through a lack of political imagination. There are innumerable ways to adequately fund our higher education system (maintaining current corporate taxation levels and reducing tax deductions for the wealthy, to name a few) – the government just won’t consider them.

In reality, this policy is not modest or fair. It is just another kick in the guts to Australia’s young people. Not content with our generation shouldering the overwhelming burden of this government’s inadequacy, the Coalition is doing verbal somersaults to further subjugate us, whilst it stumbles from callousness to inertia on the impenetrable housing market, climate change and rising inequality.

It is tragic that Malcolm Turnbull, a former Oxford scholar with three degrees he paid next to nothing for, is now cutting funding to institutions upon which he built his personal success. Perhaps, like same-sex marriage, the Republic and climate change, universities will be left on the scrap heap now they’ve ceased being useful to his personal advancement.

Our Prime Minister likes to think himself scholarly, and gives the superficial impression of intellectualism by name dropping the Athenian scholar Thucydides in his speeches, as if this might negate his utter capitulation to ultra-conservative unreason on higher education policy, amongst other portfolios.

In the so-called “post-truth” era, perhaps universities don’t matter. What is the use of teaching students to think critically, to rigorously analyse data and question assumptions if alarmist appeals to emotion are more persuasive? Yet it would do society a great favour if our current government revised their old textbooks and raised the tone of our public debate, before leaping to decisions incongruous with the realities of modern life for the generation whose fate will determine our nation’s future prosperity.

Perhaps then they may be reminded of the benefits of a decent education, and prioritise its accessibility and quality for my generation, and those to come.


Image source: ABC

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