The Future of Education

CW: COVID-19, Bushfires

On Friday June 19, the cost of studying a Bachelor of Arts doubled. We have been told that our humanities degrees are ‘irrelevant’, and the university sector is in jeopardy.

When ANU was founded in 1946 it sought to be the nation’s University, a university that would be a leader and rival the great institutions of the world. I fear that with ANU currently facing a $225 million budget crisis and the government doubling the cost of education, these visions will never be met. Ultimately, three questions need to be asked: 

  1. Why has this occurred? 
  2. What will happen?
  3. What can we do?

It started in January when the worst bushfire season on record struck. Then, ANU and the Canberra region was devastated by a once in a century hailstorm, meaning that ANU started the year in a difficult position. By March, we saw COVID-19 take thousands of lives globally and the economy come to halt. Tough decisions were made by policy makers when they put the brakes on our 29 years of economic growth whilst rapidly trying to hit the accelerator.

I don’t have my driver’s license, but even I know that good things don’t happen when you try to press both the brake and the accelerator at the same time.

International students, who are integral to the modern university landscape, were prevented from arriving in Australia at the beginning of Semester 1 due to travel restrictions. Now, it is likely that the pool of international students at ANU will diminish. With vital research and the livelihood of the university intertwined with the dependence on the international market, ANU has suffered an estimated $225 million revenue loss.

What was the government’s solution to this horrific economic landscape? Jobseeker, then Jobkeeper and now, Jobmaker. Whilst these policies are unprecedented and have supported millions of Australians, they have also deliberately excluded universities. Time and again, there were calls for the university sector to be included in these bailout measures. They weren’t. When the government announced their $70 billion stuff up in the Jobkeeper program, they could have included the millions of casuals left behind, the collapsing arts sector, and universities in the package. They didn’t.

With the imminent crisis in the tertiary sector, this government has decided to more than double the cost of humanities courses. This year, I have paid $6684 to study my arts degree, and next year I will have to pay $14,500. Law and economics courses will also increase by 28 per cent to the same yearly cost of $14,500. On the other hand, ‘relevant’ degrees such as science, languages, agriculture and maths have received an up to 62 per cent decrease in cost. 

What are the consequences? Before the government’s reforms, ANU staff were already facing a wage freeze and casuals, who are integral to our University, were about to lose their jobs.

Let’s be clear, none of this would be happening if the government had included universities in their economic stimulus package. Courses are now inevitably going to be cut. In recent years, we’ve already seen ANU cut courses when their financial position wasn’t even as dire. In 2014, the ANU School of Music was nearly wiped out, saved only by the work of student activists, and more recently, the Diploma of Languages was cancelled before being reinstated.

If ANU was already prepared to do this before their current financial position, I fear that we now face even more devastation. More fearful is the government’s doubling of fees, and what will come when the debt that universities have accumulated becomes too much. Even before the announcement, we had already known this government’s track record. Not only have they purposely neglected universities in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they have been implementing austerity measures on the university sector for years. 

In 2014, this government wanted to uncap university fees. This would have increased the price of education to the levels of universities in the United States, and would have shifted universities from being a public good to a private good. Income should not dictate education. In a country as wealthy and prosperous as ours and that enshrines equality and a fair go, you should not have to buy your way into a better university education.

The doubling of fees for humanities courses is going to have serious implications. We’ve been told today that the main priority of universities should be to educate students to get a job. I’m going to university to enrich my passions, to think critically and gain a new perspective on the subjects I already have a deep interest in. Now, I’ve been told that my degree is ‘irrelevant’ to this Liberal government’s narrow concept of the job market. Some students will continue to pursue their passions and enrol in degrees that are now 113 per cent more expensive. Others will take more courses in ‘relevant’ degrees in order to bring down the cost of their education. However, the greatest disappointment comes to those students who now won’t be able to afford to enrol in humanities degrees. Students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who have historically been majorly unrepresented in higher education and are now locked out of pursuing their life goals. The intellectuals who have dominated these humanities fields for centuries have been privileged white men, and now as result of the government’s doubling in fees, this will remain for years to come.

So, what can we as students do? Firstly, we need to make it clear that universities are not-for-profit entities. Their purpose is to provide education. They are a public good from which all of society benefits. We need to approach the financial loss and the fee hikes from this position. When cuts ensue, we need to be vocal. When our courses double in cost, we need to be vocal. We’ve seen that student activism works and that the university does listen. When ANU attempted to use Proctorio to invigilate online exams, students spoke up and now only a handful of courses are using the intrusive software. And when the Liberal government attempted to uncap university fees in 2014, they failed because of the strong counter-campaign by students.

We should be hopeful that our voices will be heard and that the senate will block the doubling of fees for humanities courses. But in order for this to happen, we can’t sit back and watch as our futures are decided. We have to be active. We also need to prioritise what we want out of the university. A high quality and diverse education should be the goal. And this extends beyond the classroom to residential halls, societies and groups that inform our lives just as much as lectures, tutorials and assessments do.

As a first-year student, I don’t have all the answers, but the success or failure of universities in Australia is my future. My ideals of how I want my university education to be has dramatically shifted to the harsh reality that these next five years are going to be completely different.

However, different does not, and should not, mean worse. The next few months and years are going to be hard. Staff, students and the university as a whole are going to have to evaluate what we want out of ANU. We have an opportunity to not just hold onto the courses and employment opportunities that were already there, but to transform our education into what it should be. So, speak up and let your voice be heard because, after all, we need to be the change that we seek.

Marlow Meares is a first-year Bachelor of Arts student.