Like other sectors, public universities have been hit hard during the pandemic. However, unlike others, the reasons behind the higher education sector receiving such a sustained blow were more to do with the Morrison government settling an old score, than any impact of the virus.
Sure, there was always going to be an issue with the loss of revenue due to border closures preventing the usual influx of international students, but the fact that the federal Coalition denied public universities the JobKeeper subsidy played a key role in undermining them.
By February this year, more than 17,000 university staff – or 13 percent of the workforce prior to COVID-19 – had lost their employment over the course of the pandemic and this was only set to grow.
As the country was slowly emerging from the nationwide lockdowns of mid-last year, the federal Liberals drafted and passed the Job-Ready Bill, which cut government funding for degrees overall, whilst upping the fees for certain students.
Gutting higher education might seem like a counterintuitive move for a nation that seeks to excel both domestically and on the international stage.
However, that’s until the Coalition’s long-term ideological opposition to higher learning and critical thought is factored in.
Bleeding it dry
“The government refused to support public universities with JobKeeper money, while at the same time it gave those payments to private schools and private higher education providers,” said Sydney University linguistics academic Dr Nicholas Riemer.
“Since then, the situation has only gotten worse,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “A small number of universities are doing okay, but most are still really struggling, and there have been rounds of redundancies and job cuts across the sector.”
The federal government changed the qualifying stipulations of the JobKeeper allowance three times in April last year, with every reform being made designed to ensure public universities were restricted from these payments, whilst private universities were able to claim them.
At the same time, private and Catholic schools were propped up. And as the Herald’s George Megalogenis explained last month, the preferencing of private schools over public universities is a Howard-era practice that Abbot, Turnbull and Morrison have all continued.
“We can only speculate about why the government is so hostile to universities,” Reimer continued. “You hear the Coalition is divided on this. There are some in the Coalition who think universities should be supported, but the majority just hate universities and everything they stand for.”
An ongoing assault
And this year’s federal budget was more of the same. National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Dr Alison Barnes remarked on budget night that the government had revealed that the Job-Ready package had resulted in an overall 9.3 percent funding cut.
Barnes went on to say if the federal government was serious about investing in “skills, education and training”, it would provide funding for the nation’s struggling fourth biggest export sector, however it has abandoned university staff and the education of the next generation.
Whilst decrying this year’s federal budget public university neglect in the Guardian, ANU vice chancellor Brian P Schmidt pointed out that this lack of investment has implications for the entire nation going into the future.
And he added that our country is unique amongst all the highly developed nations of the world, in that the government’s lack of prioritising the roles that these institutions play means that universities are forced to prop up the research they undertake via student fees.
Blinded by ideology
Whilst the government placed other major initiatives on the backburner last year due to the onset of the pandemic, it made certain that it rolled out the Job-Ready Bill, which was ostensibly designed to funnel students into the “right” courses, so that they can secure employment following graduation.
Passed in mid-October, the legislation lowered the fees for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, whilst it hiked the fees on law degrees, and doubled those that apply to humanities and the arts.
Riemer described the Job-Ready package at the time, as clearly being “an ideological campaign against the humanities and the arts”, as the federal Coalition fears these departments are harbouring “Marxists”, who have been “too critical towards culture and history”.
The NTEU Sydney University branch committee member further pointed out that the overall effect of Job-Ready is that all students were being penalised by the new laws, as even though STEM subject fees were dropped, the government also cut its funding contributions to these courses as well.
In deep crisis
A ridiculous aspect to the Liberal Nationals culture war against higher learning is that most Coalition MPs attended such institutions themselves, and many of them studied the arts and avoided paying for their degrees, at least in part, due to the Whitlam government’s abolition of tuition fees.
Greens Senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi pointed out in June last year that sixteen federal Coalition members had benefited from free higher education. And she added that attorney general Michaelia Cash did arts at Curtin University, while former AG Christian Porter did arts and economics at UWA.
“The Coalition is so caught up with its own agenda that it is even prepared to cut loose an important generator of economic prosperity in order to prosecute its ideological wars,” Riemer asserted. “We can see the same kind of inbreed reasoning in many other areas of government policy.”’
The academic drew a correlation between the Morrison government’s approach to universities and its track record with fossil fuels. Indeed, despite most of the globe now acknowledging the need to transition to renewables, the Coalition unveiled its gas-led recovery mid-pandemic.
“Obviously, the downturn in international students is a problem for the sector, nobody denies that,” Riemer explained, “but the sector’s reliance on students from overseas is itself a symptom of the government’s failure to support universities.”
“The Coalition’s own loyalties and the axes they have to grind are their overriding policy concern regardless of their effects on society, the economy or the planet,” he concluded.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.