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Australia’s Civic Life Will Suffer If Major Parties Turn Universities Into Degree Factories

Australia’s universities are vital to our nation’s future. This is not only because they are fundamental to the growth of our economy but because they are an essential public good. Universities are more than just degree factories; they provide pathways for citizens to realise their dreams and to reach their potential. They provide opportunities to exchange ideas, reflect on our world and find solutions. They are vital to the civic life of our country.

That’s why the economic rationalist approach of Labor and the Liberal party is so damaging. By casting students simply as consumers who pay for a product (education) in order to secure a job, Australia is diminishing the inherent value of education. Education is not merely a means to an end, but rather an end in itself.

Since the Labor party initiated HECS in the 1980s we’ve seen the student “contribution” continue to increase. This doesn’t just saddle graduates with more debt, but also cements the idea that education is purely for their private gain rather than for the public good. This, of course, makes it easy for governments to justify funding cuts but it also challenges the civic role of universities.

The Abbott/Turnbull government’s fee deregulation plan is an extension of this economic agenda. Deregulation would radically transform the face of higher education in this country, establishing a system that is based on wealth and privilege.

It’s clear that Australians don’t want to go down the US path, where your access to education depends on the size of your bank balance and families are shackled with crippling debt just in order to secure a place at university.

Higher education is one of the fundamental drivers of social mobility in a society. Our universities are vital to ensuring Australia remains a fair society where everyone has the opportunity of a quality education.

For me, university was lifechanging. It was a time where I was able to develop my own identity and independent worldview. I worked part time, but university was much more than just getting that parchment (and mammoth Hecs debt) on graduation day, it was an experience. Unfortunately, that experience is being diminished for students today.

Funding cuts and a long term failure to appropriately invest in our universities has fundamentally changed university life. Class sizes continue to balloon and students spend less time with their lecturers and tutors. Some universities are even ditching face to face interactions altogether, replacing lectures with online learning.

Students these days are also often required to juggle numerous jobs in order to get by, and youth allowance remains woefully inadequate. The modern student is placed under enormous pressure as a result.

Students aren’t the only ones grappling with the impact of this underinvestment. A recent survey indicated that academics are overworked and underpaid for their work, with about 50% of academic staff undertaking unpaid overtime just to keep up with student demands.

Other universities have had to freeze the hiring of new staff due to budget constraints. More recently, we have seen some institutions slash their staffing numbers in an effort to keep costs down.

One of the saddest things about all this is that it comes at a time when universities have never been more important for our nation.

Australia faces some big challenges. adapting to climate change and transitioning our economy will require bold new thinking, imagination and cutting edge ideas. Universities are at the forefront of this kind of creativity.

If Australia is to continue competing on the global stage we are going to require a highly skilled, educated and flexible workforce.

Australia faces some difficult questions about the sort of country we want to become. The Turnbull Government’s rhetoric is about innovation and grasping new opportunities. But without a significant investment in our universities, our nation will be left behind in the 21st century economy.

The Australian Greens know that universities are vital to our nation’s future and will continue to fight for them to get the support they need.

This was first published November 10, 2015, on The Guardian.