Dear readers, please do not run away or close the window because I’m an Arts student: I have something important to say.
Over the past five years I have enjoyed a successful “career” (for wont of a better word) studying at four different universities and I now find myself in the early stages of a Doctorate.
There are many observations I could make about universities (my wife removes sharp objects from the room when anyone mentions VSU) but the issue most worrying me at the moment relates to the Group of Eight’s attitude towards funding and student contributions.
Michael Gallagher, executive director of the Group of Eight (Go8), seized the opportunity to call for the removal of any caps on student contributions.
Mr. Gallagher claimed that to subsidise student placements was a form of “middle-class welfare” and, alarmingly, that subsidising education was “socially regressive”.
The reasoning behind these claims is, at first glance, logical: students at independent schools pay more, get a better education and thus have a better chance of matriculating. However, Mr. Gallagher continued on to say: ‘‘Independent school fees act as a means of rationing access to very high quality schooling, excluding all but the wealthy”.
When I first read this I thought that it must have been a misprint or misquote – did the head of an organisation representing public universities really just advocate such elitism and exclusivity? When the Go8 released its policy paper on university funding it became clear that he wasn’t but given the bizarre reasoning used to develop the policy I am not surprised that the mistake was made.
It would seem that Mr. Gallagher and the Go8 were trying to drum up support for increasing student contributions by appealing to that old bugbear of independent school funding. Their argument is that the quality of education and matriculation rates at independent schools is largely the result of independent schools being able to charge what they like for tuition. Say nothing about the large number of families who send their children to independent schools because their local public schools have failed them or because they specifically want their children to matriculate.
Say nothing, either, about the fact that the fees for independent schooling pay for extra-curricular activities, different curricula and, at some schools, food and after-school tutoring. Or about the fact that many parents aren’t so much “willing” to pay the huge fees for independent schooling as they are obliged. The weight of the fees are especially felt by those lower-income families who have chosen to send their children to an independent school to make the most use of a talent or to give their children a better chance of success than their local public school could provide.
I say this with confidence because I know that my sister and I were not the only students at our high-schools (both independent) who did not come from a wealthy background. Even if independent school graduates are over-represented in university enrolments this does not mean that they are willing (or even able) to pay more for their tertiary education.
For several years student unions and the National Union of Students have been pointing out that a significant number of university students in this country have to take out loans and miss meals to ensure their financial survival while studying (and working) and that as much as 20 per cent of university students live in poverty. Even many students still living at home now have to work while studying to afford textbooks, parking and other non-deferrable costs of education.
Some universities have even started to reduce subsidies for important student services: the University of Adelaide and Deakin University recently hiked up the cost of parking permits, the latter justifying the rise by saying that the charges were in line with what the university could expect to charge if it was a parking company.
There is a recognised need to increase funding of university education. However, with students already bent double from the cost of tertiary education and with no guarantee of employment upon graduation (looking for work in a job related to your degree? Ha!) universities should look elsewhere for funding and stop placing the business of education ahead of education itself.