Coalition Continues Assault on Universities

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Scott Morrison

Prime minister Scott Morrison and his Canberra cronies have taken the moment afforded by the COVID crisis to continue the Coalition’s long-term assault on universities, especially those departments that are producing academics that don’t toe the Liberal Party line.

In late March, as the pandemic lockdown saw many businesses close, it became apparent that large numbers could find themselves without paid employment. But, as the government stepped in with support packages, these subsidies distinctly left international students out in the cold.

And, as universities moved to apply for the JobKeeper package – which would allow them to keep on staff that would otherwise have to be let go – the government made three sets of changes to the wage subsidy program to ensure it excluded public university employees.

Then, to lay in a final boot, education minister Dan Tehan has announced the Job-Ready Graduates Package, which takes aim at the humanities and the arts – the Liberals’ old culture war foes – while pulling enough funding out of universities as a whole, so no faculty comes out unscathed.

Dr Nicholas Riemer protesting recently in Chinatown
Dr Nicholas Riemer protesting recently in Chinatown

Ideological warfare

“This is part of the determined structural sabotage of higher education that successive governments have been undertaking for a long time now,” Sydney University academic Dr Nicholas Riemer told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

“And it’s pretty clear that there are not only budgetary imperatives at work, but also ideological ones, particularly with this government.”

Ostensibly designed to funnel students into certain courses for employment purposes, the Job-Ready package proposes to double fees for humanities and arts degrees, while law and commerce will be hiked and fees applying to STEM subjects will be dropped.

Riemer points out that “it’s very clearly an ideological campaign against the humanities and the arts”, as when it became apparent higher fees might encourage universities to put more emphasis on getting students to enrol in these courses, the government announced measures to prevent this.

“The Liberal Party has clearly sided with critics coming from the right, saying humanities departments are full of cultural Marxists,” the senior English and linguistic lecturer continued. “The right has been upset by humanities for being too critical towards culture and history.”

 “Cutting the legs out”

And while the government says it’s trying to ensure that those attending universities take courses it asserts will lead to a post-COVID economic upturn, Dr Riemer outlines that overall the Morrison government is “pulling money out of higher education”.

“Even STEM subjects are going to be less supported by federal funds than previously,” Riemer made clear, adding that Tehan’s defunding measures are “very clearly cut from the same cloth” as then education minister Christopher Pyne’s 2014 attempt to deregulate universities.

As the JobKeeper package was originally introduced it appeared that university staff would be covered. But, when Sydney University and La Trobe applied, they were subsequently knocked back, as the Coalition made three changes to the package that targeted public universities.

“The government changed the rules over JobKeeper several times to specifically rule out public universities – the universities that still get some government funding,” Riemer explained. “At the same time, private universities, like Bond and Notre Dame, were eligible for the packages.”

By cover of COVID

The Coalition began waging its war on universities back in 1996, with the coming of Howard. And since that time, these institutions have managed to stay buoyant via the high fees international students are charged. Indeed, overseas students are the nation’s fourth largest industry.

But, as the COVID-19 crisis kicked in, the PM – who incidentally only paid fees for one year of his four year university course – told international students that suddenly found themselves with no more paid employment to simply rack off back home, at a time when international borders were closing.

China’s Ministry of Education has now warned its citizens to avoid returning to this country to study due to “incidents of discrimination”. And Australian universities are already starting to feel the pinch over the loss of many of their clients from aboard.

“The biggest thing at the moment are the job losses being faced by casualised academic staff,” Dr Riemer continued. “Because of the downturn in international students, all of these people are facing the sack. And in many cases, they already have been.”

“After that there are the losses to ongoing jobs, both academic and non-academic. They’ve already started and they’re likely to intensify,” warned the NTEU Sydney University branch committee member.

“So, the government is in the process of cutting the legs out from under the higher education sector in Australia, at the same time as it’s just announcing $270 billion in funding for military spending.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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