Higher education should be for everyone

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At the beginning of this year, in what was a spur of the moment decision, I applied to undertake a Masters degree. It had been a long time coming. Indeed, when I finished honours in 2002, I had planned to enter the workforce, enjoy not being utterly broke for a bit, then return to uni to begin my PhD. Seven years later, I finally realised that wasn’t going to happen so I enrolled in a graduate diploma to ‘dip my toes’ back in the world of academia with the view of continuing on. Again, that didn’t happen so eight years later, here I am again: only a couple of weeks away from submitting my final assessments for my Masters and seeing what I do next.

Student studying at home (Getty)

This year though has been a ‘unique’ year to study, to say the least. The impacts of COVID-19 on the sector have been not just trying, but simply devastating. I have not set foot in a classroom all year which, I have to admit, is one of the things I have always loved most about studying — the immersion within a learning environment. The other day I actually physically picked up a textbook. It was the first time I had read academic argument all year that had not been on a screen.

I’d had exposure to listening to lectures online before but attending online tutorials where everyone is a little square with a name on it and the opportunity to interact is non-existent is completely new. Essays remain the same arduous task they have always been but group assessment tasks prepared entirely via Zoom are a new form of hell. Struggling through this semester with both a bad neck and arm injury and ‘lockdown malaise’ has been rough.

All that being said though, that’s nothing compared to what I have seen the lecturers, tutors and support staff go through. I saw them, for example, have to move entire units online in mere days as governments shut down states. I have seen tutors try to co-ordinate discussions with students who are sometimes unresponsive and often dispersed across the world.

The Indigenous support centre has been in continuous contact to ensure that despite the situation, my journey and that of other Indigenous students is a smooth one. Navigating government systems designed to support uni students are hard enough without having to walk students through it virtually from home.

So to see all these dedicated educators and support staff continue to give their utmost whilst the sector is attacked by the government is devastating. I watched recently as the government, with key support from some crossbenchers, passed the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 and knew that the futures of many had been dashed.

 

'Every day of my life I have been thankful for those who have helped broaden my horizons, who have challenged me, who have taught me to think critically and have essentially played a major part in making me the person I am today.'

 

It took me 20 years to admit that only reason I was able to go to university in the first place was because I received an Indigenous accommodation scholarship and was able to live on campus. I wasn’t deemed eligible for governmental student support until my fourth year so I worked casual jobs to get through. I wasn’t a regional or remote student, but I was one of only a handful of Indigenous students across the state in that year who had finished Year 12 and had gone straight on to uni.

The government has now seen fit to double the fees on every single course that I have taken at uni. They’ve effectively ensured the next generation of students like me won’t get the opportunity to study. It’s great that they believe they will be supporting regional and remote Indigenous students, but to assume this is institutional racism at its finest. Not only do the majority of Indigenous people live in cities, but even if they do guarantee HECS support for regional and remote Indigenous students, the majority — like I did — take courses which have just seen their fees doubled so the government is really just saddling an already financially disadvantaged cohort with exorbitant debts.

Why do so many Indigenous students study in these areas? Because not only are these areas usually the home of Indigenous studies courses, but humanities and social sciences often lead to work in the community sector.

Then there’s the fact that the majority of Indigenous academics also work in these areas of study. With lower student numbers entering these study areas due to costs and wrongful perceptions of ‘job-readiness’ (wrongful because I myself have not been out of work since I finished uni the first time), what is the surety that these dedicated Indigenous knowledge providers will have jobs in the coming months? Speaking more broadly than only Indigenous staff, can we also expect that the brilliant minds who have been teaching me and others in these areas will soon be joining the welfare queue we saw snaking around Centrelink buildings at the beginning of the COVID lockdown in March?

Every day of my life I have been thankful for those who have helped broaden my horizons, who have challenged me, who have taught me to think critically and have essentially played a major part in making me the person I am today. More than ever, I am thankful this year that they have somehow still managed to do so while facing some of the biggest challenges the sector has ever seen.

It therefore distresses me that thanks to governmental short-term thinking, elitism, ignorance and, yes, racism they are, as Senator Jacqui Lambie told the Senate in her moving speech opposing the bill, telling future generations to ‘dream a little cheaper’. Australia is on the precipice of another ‘brain drain’ and due to their continual attacks on higher education. I think they’re too stupid to see it.

 

 

Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: Getty images

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, COVID-19, online learning, universities, job ready, Jacqui Lambie

 

 

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Existing comments

The only disagreement I have is that I doubt it’s either shortsightedness or stupidity that’s the deep motivation for this move. I think it’s a deliberate attack on humanities departments , perceived by the Government as hotbeds of radical neo-Marxism. Well, of course they are. But this isn’t the way to fix it, and certainly not at the cost of the educational opportunities of disadvantaged people. (Amazing how willing they are to make blood sacrifices of their children in the interests of their philosophy, though I’ll admit the Left is similarly inclined. In other words, this isn’t stupidity so much as it is original sin. Philosophies , like economies, only exist in the service of the people.
Joan Seymour | 29 October 2020


Having seen 7 children through University and seen them achieve so much through the HACS scheme, why haven't we got this any more to appreciate the skills they can add to our wonderful society. The logo for our family: "The only thing that can't be taken from you is Education!!"
Glenda Burke (Mrs.) | 30 October 2020


Not everyone is capable of higher education. Not every higher education institute in this country is capable of providing "higher education". Successful equality in education demands the dumbing down of tertiary institutions something which we have managed with distinction in this country.
john frawley | 02 November 2020


Higher education evidently has benefited Celeste and others, but is its necessity assumption that applies for all? Are we becoming myth-and-byte -dazzled? - "The Knowledge Society"; The Clever Country"; "The Leisure Society", etc.? The mechanical workers of TF ("Technocratic Future") might improve efficiency and reduce costs for the corporations that employ them, but, as my father's generation not long ago use to say: "What about the worker?" And what about the sense of achievement, contribution and solidarity manual workers experience in their labours?
John RD | 02 November 2020


Here's a dirt cheap way to higher education. Read Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book", then on Amazon pick up bargain copies of the classics he lists and discusses there and apply his method. Create a discussion group! For maths and science at graduate levels, go online to places like Khan Academy. For languages, e.g. Duolingo. For music, Youtube is groaning with highly detailed instruction. (I'm watching a stunning series on medieval and renaissance music theory and practice.) Also Youtube has brilliant series on classics, such as Yale Uni's Prof Donald Kagan on Ancient Greece. You can even download the course materials online FOR FREE! There has never been a time in the history of the world when higher education has been so ridiculously cheap and available to the masses. I've only scratched the tip of the iceberg. Could it be that with a blinkered focus on Government as The Provider of Higher Education (or any education) we are starving ourselves in the midst of plenty?
HH | 07 November 2020


Thanks for the references, HH - especially Kagan's on Ancient Greece. (There are also some excellent Harvard lectures on leading English poets, unencumbered by the diktats of currently prescribed interpretive "lenses").
John RD | 09 November 2020


HH: “Youtube is groaning with highly detailed instruction” Indeed. Between Youtube and MOOCs, you don’t have to leave home. If you prefer to learn by watching and listening rather than reading, you can get an excellent short-cut to a perspective on greed, folly and useful idiocy in the West in your bedtime listening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7WUyFTUBKM
roy chen yee | 09 November 2020


John and Roy: tick! I was sitting at a Melbourne underground last year watching Kagan on my iphone discoursing to his students- and me - on the Mycenaean civilization and its mysterious decline. I glanced about me at others with their phones facebooking and tweeting, no doubt. Perhaps rather judgementally, I thought, "Well, there's no mystery as to how THIS civilization will end!" If Gollum had an iphone he would managed to tweet "Uh, oh, Precious!" on his way down into the lava of Mount Doom.
HH | 11 November 2020


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