Just before Christmas, the Turnbull government decided to freeze growth in university places as part of a fourth attempt at university cuts. At Western Sydney University, which many of my constituents attend, they're facing some of the largest hits to any university in New South Wales. Of the more than $2.2 billion being denied to universities across Australia, $93 million will not go to Western Sydney University.
About a quarter of the students come from low-income families, and nearly 62 per cent of students at Western Sydney University are the first in their family to go to uni.
By slashing their funding, the government has effectively reintroduced limits on student numbers. There was no consultation and no discussion, just a big fat roadblock to someone's education. It takes us back to the bad olddays when undergraduate places were determined by bureaucrats in Canberra.
That led to a university system that wasn't keeping up with population growth or the needs of a growing economy. I remember when entry scores for courses were becoming high because supply was being deliberately held tight at a time of increasing demand.
'How dare people assume that they should be entitled to do go to universities!' seemed to be the prevailing idea. The reality of John Howard's university system was that many bright students were missing out on the course thatthey wanted, while others, who had wealthy parents, could buy their way into a course with a lower entry scoreby paying full fees. We can't go back to that. That skewed universities in favour of those from the most privilegedbackgrounds, while there was a lack of participation from students from outer metropolitan areas like mine.
That's why Labor set about boosting participation in higher education, particularly the number of students from regional Australia and disadvantaged and unrepresented backgrounds. As a result, 190,000 more Australians have attended university, many coming from areas where participation was lower.
The university system should be driven by demand. It seems those opposite want to make it harder to go to uni,but we don't. Dr Andy Marks, who's the Assistant Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University, rightly asks:
“How will freezing university enrolments in Western Sydney bring about the monumental skills-uplift requiredin the region's labour force? How will demanding nurses, teachers and social workers pay more of their HECS debt sooner help deliver the frontline services the region so desperately needs? The same dedicated people who already can't afford to live near where they work.”
These are good questions and issues to raise. The consequences of the cuts are that students will be worse off,there will be fewer staff employed, scholarships will be at risk and some of the schemes that support not just students but the wider community will have to go.
Of course, not all the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury based students go to Western Sydney University; manytravel further afield to the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University,UTS and the University of Wollongong. That doesn't mean they're immune from these cuts. These cuts total $330 million over four years to those other New South Wales institutions.
Right now, many year-12 students are sitting their trial HSC in preparation for their main exams in October. Many of them have the added stress of making a decision about whether they go to university, which university to apply for and even whether or not they can really afford it.
The students travelling from outer metropolitan areas, if they're lucky enough to get a place, will join the rest of Western Sydney in contending with the failing train system, hefty road tolls and long travel times, even if they're heading to a local campus. Others will opt for crazy rents and two-minute noodles in preference. Many will try and pay their way through uni on a wage that is less likely than ever to cover the cost of living, made worse by this government's attack on penalty rates.
No matter which way you look at it, cutting funding to universities, especially those that impact Western Sydney,is yet another attack that will increase inequality. A Centre for Western Sydney report released last year shows bachelor degree attainment among young people in the region is 40 per cent lower than elsewhere.
I'll quote Dr Marks again: “The government’s freeze on funding shows they are OK with that imbalance. Well, I see a problem. That imbalance is not okay with me.”