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The Americanisation of Australia's universities


US student in debt

In April 2012, National Public Radio (NPR) in the US ran a story about student debt, announcing that American citizens owe over one trillion dollars in student loans. 

Is this the direction Australia wants to follow? 

According to Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, the answer is yes. 

Pyne has often stated that universities in Australia are on board when it comes to deregulation. This may be true for management, but not so for lecturers, tutors and researchers. 

Every semester I teach English literature to between 75 and 100 (mostly) eager students at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). UWS is the most diverse university in Australia, and possibly the world. I have students from Iraq and Israel, from the Tiwi Islands and Taiwan, South Africa and South America. Most are Australian citizens and 30 per cent are Muslim. Many are the first in their family to go to university. 

We sit in a classroom in Bankstown, 20 or 22 in a circle, discussing Plato’s cave and Hamlet’s ghosts. We talk about the nature of utopias and dystopias. Sometimes the discussion veers towards ISIS or the biased portrayal of Muslims in the Australian media. 

There are not many places where 20 people from radically different backgrounds can use literature as a jumping off point to discuss contemporary issues of the day, but the classrooms at UWS are one place where this can and does happen.    

As a staff member, I am well aware of the financial situation of my students. Most are not well off. Many are in debt. On the first day of every semester, I ask them to tell me by show of hands if they work, and over two thirds have a job. Some work full time. A few are mothers who look after children and work as well as study. For most of my students, finding a way to pay their uni fees already takes away from valuable time that should be spent studying.

Three weeks ago a Charter for Australian Public Universities was published by a group of academics from four public Australian universities. Academics from these institutions have formed the National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU) and voiced grave concerns about deregulating student fees. The charter has already gathered over 1200 signatures from every public university in the country, including that of the Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee, and over a hundred professors.

It may well be that university vice chancellors have voiced support for Christopher Pyne’s calls for deregulation. But, according to the charter released last month, they are ‘not representative of the concerns of university staff at large, but a management stratum that is beholden to corporate self-interest, particularly when faced with deep funding cuts and deregulation as the only option for making up the difference.’ 

Bravely, Stephen Parker, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, has also committed his signature to the NAPU charter, showing that the gap between management and staff is not unbridgeable.

I come from the land of deregulation. When I completed a degree at Columbia University in 2005, my university fees were $35,000 a year. They have since increased. Columbia is not particularly diverse. It is an elite university with students who are either rich or willing to go into a large amount of debt. 

According to NPR, ’Americans now owe more on student loans than they do on their credit cards’. 

I am amazed by the way Australia is willing to follow in the direction of the US when it is clear that this will only create more inequality, mainly by forcing people without money to either miss out all together on higher education or go into a huge amount of debt.

The first of eight ‘principals’ in the Charter for Australian Public Universities states that, ‘Universities provide both public and private benefits. To fulfil these, they must function independently of market forces and political interference.’

Making uni more expensive changes the nature of higher education. Choosing a university becomes akin to buying a new car, or a holiday. University campuses in America have begun to look like five-star resorts, and they have the price-tags to match, but are new squash courts and a Swedish style sauna equal to a good education? 

Sky-rocketing university fees will lead to greater debt and more inequality in Australia. In a country that prides itself on its diversity and the notion of a fair go, is this really the right choice? Teachers at Australian universities think not. 

Sarah KlenbortSarah Klenbort is a US-born writer of fiction and non-fiction who also teaches literature at the University of Western Sydney.

Student debt image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Sarah Klenbort, deregulation, Christopher Pyne, university funding, education, debt, students



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Existing comments

Welcome to the world of Corporations :) Where Oligarchies set the rules and the government implement those rules. For the last 10 years I have been reading about this NWO and I kept telling myself "NO WAY" - But lately, I am finding it hard to actually dismiss this so call "conspiracy" - Everything seems to be spiralling towards the one and only centre of gravity which is: "Enslave the people in debt" - make them work till they drop dead. It is amazing to see the amount of collusion between governments and Banks firstly, then the others follow. Governments don't care about the people anymore, they work for these corporations, they have lost track of what a public servant really means. Look at them, living the high life and the more they crush their citizen the better they are rewarded after they leave office. Call me crazy :) sometimes even I call myself crazy and try to shake off these thoughts but the more you look around the more you see how the Elites are consolidating their positions while us peasants are being put down to the ground.

Maximus | 07 November 2014  

Ohh, how about: "Dumbing down the population" - I hear in the US many can't even find Australia on a map :). We are going backwards as a society when we spend more on wars than on education. Long run, we will regress but the leaders of today don't seem to really care do they :). Today's leaders are liars, thieves and ego centric people. Becoming a leader now reminds me of a mafia boss, they have to hide from their own people in bullet proof cars and need security guards to walk down the streets. Where are the good old days when leaders could walk to the market and mingle with their people :) Gone !!! Sometimes I feel a despair inside of me when I look at the world around us :( ...... where are the leaders of yesterday with honour and courage :(.

Maximus | 07 November 2014  

You'd think that people in universities might know the difference between principals and principles.

Geoff Freeman | 07 November 2014  

Yes, the Americanisation of universities leading to the Americanisation of Australian society. Compare social mobility in the U.S. to, say, Denmark (much better, with free universities), and choose which path you want to take.

Russell | 07 November 2014  

Good article. One point that needs to be made in this public debate is that universities in the US (both public and private institutions) have been the beneficiaries of a long period of private philanthropy, which provides needed funds over and above government support and student fees. Deregulating Australian universities in the absence of a culture of strong philanthropic support for tertiary education would not turn our Australian universities into Harvards, Yales, Princetons, Lafayettes, and Notre Dames. It would merely starve them of funds.

Bob Faser | 10 November 2014  

Thank you for this, Sarah Klenbort. It state the case so clearly. This government is so bereft of evidence-based ideas it has to rely on ideology and a blind devotion to the American way, whatever.

Sara Dowse | 10 November 2014  

Sarah well put. The move to 'market forces' will also influence curricula as well as what studies students can afford to pursue that will lead to repayable job outcomes.

Roger Vallance | 10 November 2014  

Thank you Sarah, I totally agree with all you have written. The key to a lively and harmonious society is education and the opportunity to explore ideas in a safe nonjudgmental environment . University should be acessable to everybody .

Diana White | 10 November 2014  

As far as I can see the main reason VCs are agreeing to this is to try to make up for the massive funding shortfall caused by successive government cuts in higher education. It is not a matter of principle but of survival. if they were properly funded they would not be going down the path of fee deregulation.

Neil Ormerod | 10 November 2014  

This policy direction is wrong and unwise. Christopher Pyne is out oftouch with grass roots Australians and needs to step down; we no longer are a country of a fair go, nor one that takes responsibility for her people. Students are stressed by incredibly high fees already. To deregulate the universities fails common sense and evidence -based practice of what works best !it is absolute madness and will lead to even greater inequities. Money can be found for war but Government devolves herself of her own responsibilities to her people education ( whether at a local level for primary school right through to university) is the responsibility of Governments. Government pushes one to take responsibility, she first needs to set a standard herself. We pay taxes local affordable school. and also tertiary and university education should be supported and funded. Where is the outrage

George | 10 November 2014  

Unfortunately Sarah, I think that you and most of the commentators here are quite wrong! What we have seen since Witlam is a large opening up of the University system to sections of the population that did not have previous access i.e. "mass" higher education; everyone that can benefit can go. BUT, the cost of that is unsustainable without significant "user-pays" contribution. That has been made tenable by very affordable loans and pay back only when earning average wages (NEITHER available in the US, and the huge standout difference between us and them). The choices we have is to return to a niche university system in which only the well-off get access, or a much more open system, heavily tax-payer subsidised but "deregulated" and with lots of scholarships for those both poor and very bright, or as will happen under the system most of you seem to want. a really dumbed-down system with no internationally-competitive institutions which then lose overseas students ...which will then create a downward spiral and implosion. In a deregulated system, but with undoubtedly still with a lot of community/political oversight, we will see diverse institutions in which all can thrive at different costs...just like one of the very good parts of the USA system. i note that Sarah chose to go to one of the very best world Unis at Columbia; she could have gone to a state university to do an "adequate" degree at a fraction of the cost. She opted for the best...and most expensive! and good on her.

Eugene | 10 November 2014  

When universities become institutions for job training which will allow a graduate to gain employment and personal income and can be accessed without a high standard of academic ability, the students should have to pay.

john frawley | 10 November 2014  

There is nothing unjust about economic inequality, but power inequality is. An example the excessive power of the Unions and inequality being the favourite word of the left-wing advocates. ES stop rubbishing the current Federal Government who are desperately trying to make some sense of the economy inherited from Labor and the Greens parties.

Ron Cini | 10 November 2014  

When a student graduates with a qualification that provides international opportunities, the logical thing to do is to catch a plane to the US or Europe. Get a well paid job overseas and forget the HECS debt. I, for one, would not blame if they do so, but I wonder what the government's attitude will be when they find a large proportion of student debt has become uncollectable.

Vin Victory | 10 November 2014  

Where can non-academics sign up to your charter?

Torrey Orton | 10 November 2014  

Minister Pyne keeps telling us that students only pay back HECS at 2 per cent, so what is the problem. They actually begin at 4 per cent going up to 8 per cent depending on their income. With his proposed interest rate of 6 per cent per annum student will have an annual interest on HECS from 10 per cent to 14 per cent. With deregulated fees the cost particularly for regional students to take on a course in a metro uni will be a huge deterrent. It already is. If you are studying law or medicine or engineering and have to pay $180.000 for your course you had better not partner with a fellow graduate from the same course.

Vince | 10 November 2014  

Many see education as a way out of poverty. Our Unis don't work that way. Many degrees including most offered at UWS do nothing to improve the well being of families in the local area. Do statistics show how many UWS graduates ever earn enough to pay back their HECS? Universities which are publicly funded provide little return on investment. Uni's should only receive funding once graduates based on results for example only once they produce graduates earning over a threshold. Unis should not exist just to give otherwise unemployable academics a job.

Everyone Lovesfreestuff | 10 November 2014  

Has Pyne ever thought of the following correspondence: the US university debt is a reflection of the massive US economy debt. Australia should think seriously about whether they are correlated.

Jane Anderson | 10 November 2014  

"everyone that can benefit can go". But Eugene, not everyone benefits to the same degree - a doctor or lawyer will benefit quite a bit more than a librarian or laboratory technologist. Women benefit much less because of time out of employment having children. "the cost of that is unsustainable without significant "user-pays" contribution." Not the case. In any list of the wealthiest countries, Australia is at or near the top. If other countries can arrange their affairs to have free tertiary education, why can't we? We did once. Look at what happened at the time fees were re-introduced: tax reductions for the wealthy and they are now much wealthier than they have ever been. We could make different choices.

Russell | 10 November 2014  

I attended Melbourne University. part time, from 1963 to 1967. As a Commonwealth Public Servant my department paid half my fees if I passed my subjects each year. My BA degree helped me in my CPS career but it also enriched my cultural experiences. Even as a part-time student I was able to participate in Uni sporting and social activities. I don't mind saying I was envious of the full time students, especially those who attended residential colleges but we did learn a lot from one another. It is unfortunate that the current government has reduced tertiary education to a commodity for sale to those who can afford it. I doubt if the government could produce a Charter for Australian Public Universities similar to the one promulgated by NAPU - even a market driven system. The NAPU Charter is based on a concept of man as a social animal not as an economic cypher. Until the government gets a broader view of education I cannot see Universities of the Pyne model producing graduates who will work for the greater good of society as a whole but rather men and women striving to maximise the return on their educational investment.

Uncle Pat | 11 November 2014  

I was very lucky to go to University in the 1970's when the late Gough Whitlam abolished fees, if not, there was no way I could have obtained my Degree. A decade or more ago I completed my Masters-it took years to pay my HEC's .If they deregulate then there would be no way my children could complete a Degree. We will end up with the situation in the 1950's - only the wealthy went to Uni, unless you obtained a scholarship . The disadvantaged of society will suffer even more than what they are experiencing with no future for their kids-= more crime and social disorder in my view.

Gavin | 12 November 2014  

Surely in a Christian majority nation like Australia with a very loudly Christian front bench, we must hold all Christians responsible for the atrocities being perpetrated by this government.
Isn't that what Murdoch is saying about Paris?

Bilal | 12 January 2015  

An excellent and thought provoking article. The bulk of my tertiary education was free (thanks to Commonwealth Scholarships and later Gough Whitlam). I was lucky and knew it. Even without fees, University for most young people required part-time work and frugal living. The move to deregulation and crippling HECS debts far into the future for many students is in my view a retrograde step.

Diana Dibden | 20 January 2016  

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