Report urges free undergraduate education to save universities, boost employment

Public universities such as Western Sydney University rely heavily on international student fees for income. With the borders closed during the pandemic, the federal government increased fees for domestic students. Photo: Western Sydney University/Facebook.

By TILEAH DOBSON

For many, attending university in Australia has become a huge financial gamble over the last two years. What was once seen as achievable has slowly morphed into a question of whether students, both domestic and international, can afford the debts.

Before Covid-19, fees were somewhat more manageable, with the time taken to repay a Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) loan averaging out at 9.3 years according to the Australian Tax Office (ATO). However, in 2020, under the pretext of the pandemic response, the Morrison Government made significant changes to certain university course fees.

Degrees perceived to be more about meeting job supply and demand, such as teaching, nursing, languages and agriculture, were given a significant reduction in fees, of up to 42 per cent. On the other hand, communication and humanities degrees were subject to a steep 115 per cent increase.

While the changes had sparked outrage amongst students, the plan went ahead. However, new report conducted by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work has found that if the next federal government lifted public spending on higher education by one per cent of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), undergraduate education can be made free for all and employ tens of thousands of staff, resulting in a huge boost for universities.

The report found that free undergraduate education and more job security for university staff is achievable and the next federal government should make this a priority. Photo: University of Sydney/Facebook.

While the Covid-19 pandemic did wreak havoc on the public tertiary education system, it had already been decimated by decades of funding cuts and government inaction. During the height of the pandemic, more than 40,000 jobs were lost, with 35,000 of those from the public sector. These statistics are something we cannot ignore, according to the Australia Institute’s economist and author of the report, Eliza Littleton.

“Higher education is at a crossroads. Although it seems the worst of the pandemic is behind us, the implications of the crisis are still unfolding, and underlying problems associated with the sector’s corporatisation remain,” Littleton wrote in the report.

“Skilled staff who lost work during the pandemic may never return, and the workloads of remaining staff are increasingly untenable. To survive universities will continue to expect more from, and give less to, their students and workforce.”

With this in mind, there are calls for higher education to be made a higher priority during this election.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) National President, Dr Alison Barnes, said: “The state of the sector now is deeply concerning. It is the consequence of the Morrison Government’s decision to exclude universities from JobKeeper, hike student fees, cut funding per student place, entrench casualisation and decimate curiosity-driven research funding.”

Dr Barnes says Australia needs ambitious national vision when it comes to higher education, in order to help the needs of students, staff and the wider society. Photo: @Alison Barnes25/Twitter.

“The next Australian Government could remove the financial barrier to higher education, employ more than 26,000 staff in secure full-time jobs, restore research funding, reduce the over-reliance on casual staff and establish a new higher education agency to improve governance.

“Free undergraduate education would be transformative for current and future students who are now facing more expensive degrees, mounting student debt and even the threat of being kicked off HECS if they don’t pass their courses.”

Tileah Dobson is the news editor and sub-editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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