PROGRESS MEANS PAYING

Cue the violins and brace yourself for the hysteria: someone had the balls to propose a change to the university funding model.

Prepare the protests. Prepare the petitions. Mobilise the student groups and newspapers to piously preach from the NUS and NTEU hymn book. Universities are sacred. Universities challenge the status quo. Universities are a threat to entitled elite. Tory Tony is serving the 1%.

Please. Isn’t it funny how entitlement is a dirty word for one section of society but not another? Yet who is more entitled than a Group of Eight university student?

Let me propose a sociological experiment: take the top 20% of school leavers nation-wide, throw them into a city with some of the highest living standards in the world, at one of the best universities in the Southern Hemisphere and see what happens. Will they solve world problems? Open their minds to new ideas? No. They will moan about how tough their lot is.

Anyone who has worked a casual job, attended as student society or association meeting, or participated in something mundane as a group assignment knows this: it easy to be a wrecker.

Yet all we get from our student leaders on this debate is wreckage. Futile and crass campaigns orchestrated to stop the change occurring, rather than provide constructive solutions or alternatives to the change.

It also overlooks the ugly fact that the capacity for us to affect change on this policy is minimal. Bluntly, university graduates represent a small minority of the wider electorate, and university students have a tendency to be clustered in inner city electorates (read: Labor/Green territory) – the ability to affect change through vitriol and hyperbole is limited, especially on an issue for which only a segment of the electorate care about.

The university funding debate, like too many that attract student interest, is wrought with classlessness and close-mindedness. The student movement do themselves no favours when their gut reaction is outrage and gutter mouthed debate.

Where are the well-reasoned and articulate student leaders? Where are the proposed solutions to this problem, rather than the empty ‘nos’ of the disenchanted?

If this is such a potentially crippling policy, what are the ideas to lessen the impact?

On QandA we got a chant. At USyd we got a mob. At Melbourne we got both. These are the arguments of choice of the drunk football hooligan. At the time of writing, these protests were the most high profile coverage this issue received. Was it effective? Perhaps in media coverage. While the University of Sydney’s Education Action Group boasts about the media impact of their stunt, what they overlook is that the vast majority of the media coverage the following day discussed not the education cuts but the appropriateness of the protest. People weren’t talking about the issue they were talking about them. What a service these action groups are doing to our image nationwide.

The message they send is that student activists have made the decision to remain outside the tent, rather than inside it. We’re sappers, not builders.

Now we get a sit in. Setting aside the fact that at this point, the issue is well out of Ian Young’s hands, one really has to question if this is the best use of people power. This type of action represents all that is wrong with the action on this problem. It’s not constructive. It’s not effective. It’s just noisy and juvenile, the metaphorical equivalent of a toddler throwing his toy out of his pram.

I’m also certain it does a great deal to endear the student population to university stakeholders, university staff, security guards and the local police force. The word of mouth across Canberra — from Manuka and Kingston cocktail bars to the leagues clubs of Belconnen and Gungahlin — will no doubt be positive about student political action and endear the cause to the general electorate.

Or not.

Some facts to counter the slogans: Your university education is not currently free. Australian universities are already corporate (Exhibit A: ANU’s Investment Portfolio; Exhibit B: Parking Fees). You will still be able to defer payment. You will still not have to begin repaying that debt until you earn over 50k per annum.

So really, access is not a problem, just a furfy cooked up by melodramatists.

And let us not forget our international student peers, who already pay uncapped fees. Why do we deserve better? Or should they receive the same schemes as us? And if they should, are you happy for Australia to become the Poundland of Higher Education?

For the sake of balance, let me suggest some ideas: soliciting Whitlam era university successes to fund scholarships; making an anti-deregulatory submission to the Commission of Audit after it broke that the Go8 had (where was ANUSA then? Besides complaining?); working with Ian Young and the leadership of the university to make good on their promise to establish equity scholarships and to grandfather the changes (from the people who brazenly admitted they were raising parking fees by 300%, axing CASS tutorials and defunding the Music School, I see no reason to believe they’re lying about this).

To all those riled up about this issue, I urge you: sit down, have a cup of tea and think about what meaningful contributions you can make to the problems you see with this change.

As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.