By Victoria Fielding
It has been fantastic to see so many university students across the country protesting against the Abbott government’s policies to deregulate university fees and to charge an interest on fee loans.
Given this generation of young people are often criticised for their ‘slacktivism’, where a ‘like’ on a Facebook page was all the effort we made to show we felt strongly about a cause, I’m sure it’s the first time many students have ever protested in the streets. For some, it might even be the first time they’ve given much thought to politics, now that there is a policy that is so obviously going to have a detrimental effect on their future debt, and reduce affordability of higher education for young people.
It’s natural that we pay attention when we are the ones paying the price for an unfair decision by the government. However, what I would like to see is more awareness of not just how these higher education policies are going to negatively impact on individuals in the current and future generations of students, but also more awareness, and the accompanying shock and outrage, at what reduced access to higher education does to an entire community—a community we are all members of.
We have the perfect case study for what will happen to the number of young people going to university if the Abbott government gets their deregulated fee policy through the Senate. According to research, when the UK government increased university fees, 1 in 20 of the students who were expected to go to university did not apply. Some university students might say that they would be happy to see fewer of their contemporaries sharing the experience of a university education with them so as to reduce the competition for professional jobs after graduation. However, this is a short-sighted and naïve view. Because it is the very existence of millions of highly qualified, well educated people in our community that makes Australia a first world country. It is our smarts that makes us able to compete in a globalised economy. It is our propensity to innovate and to create new solutions and new products in old, developing and brand new industries that enables Australians to apply for well paid, enjoyable and intellectually stimulating employment. It is also well educated Australians who often go on to create jobs through entrepreneurial ventures that require people to take an educated risk to try something new. It is the highly educated workforce that enables Australian families to live the lifestyles that we enjoy, and the more educated people we surround ourselves with, the better those lifestyles will be, for all of us.
I can understand if you’re a bit confused at this point. So let me put it simply. I’m asking us to all be outraged about the Abbott government’s higher education policies, not just because they’re going to hurt students in the short term, but because Australia will be a less educated community in the future if these policies are implemented. So, I’m asking us all to be outraged for each other, for ourselves and for our community, all at the same time.
Think about it this way. Imagine in 10 or 20 years after you graduate, you decide you would like to start your own business in your field of professional expertise. For your business to survive and thrive, you need to be surrounded by a community well-resourced to support your business. For example, you might be an architect and you decide to start your own design firm. The first and most important ingredient for a successful business is clients. Ideally, the South Australian community will provide enough consumers of architectural services who can afford, through their employment in well paid jobs, to hire your firm to design new homes or renovations. Or the South Australian economy will provide enough businesses that can afford to invest in new buildings and developments that need your design expertise. A community and an economy without customers for an architect would not be a good place to start an architectural business.
Once your business is up and running, you might get so busy that you need staff to help you. But what if there aren’t enough graduates of architecture degrees for you to find the staff you need? Every industry needs a steady flow of professional graduates to sustain its growth, especially in an aging population like Australia’s where the Baby-Boomer generation is reaching the age of retirement.
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne justifies his proposed higher education funding policies by arguing, ‘higher education will typically be the best investment a person will ever make in their own future’. This is only one side of the coin, and the side that most young people are clearly, and rightfully, outraged about. But we should also be outraged by the other side. And that is that higher education is not just an investment by a person in their own future. It’s an investment by a person, and a government, in the future prosperity of Australia. So let’s protest about that!