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How 'free market' education 'reforms' have undermined Australian democracy

Activism at Universities has declined as a direct result of 'reforms' to Australia's tertiary sector since the ousting of the Whitlam Government in 1975. Ordinary Australians have suffered considerably as Governments have been able to impose unpopular policies harmful to Australians' interests, far more easily.

The following has been adapted from my comment in response to a recent lecture by Professor Glynn Davis, broadcast on ABC Radio National. (This whole article has also been modified since it was first published on 21 December.

) Professor Glynn Davis maintained that Indian student demonstrations in Australia showed that activism was alive and well here. But he failed to comment on an immense vacuum in political comment and grass-roots activity as the civil rights of Australians have been continually eroded. It is surely very convenient for those who profit from this erosion that student preoccupation with issues of minority discrimination prevents agitation in the face of a more general decline in civil rights and quality of life.

How can supposedly 'left wing' academics of Professor Glyn Davis's generation remain so quiet about the fact that vast layers of Australians, once able to enjoy comfortable and financially secure lives, have become impoverished under the social 'reforms' that Australia has endured since the late 1970s.

The agent of this silence is the anti-scientific dogma of so-called 'economic rationalism' with which almost all government decisions- and, it seems, academic theories - have to comply these days.

As a consequence, the cost of University courses has climbed (almost without protest) beyond the means of many ordinary Australians. Higher education costs plus other massive rises in the cost of living, particularly of housing, have made it impossible for people not from privileged backgrounds to spend time engaging in political activism as students once did. So many are forced to spend much of their free time working to pay rent and other living expenses. I also did this when I attended University full time until 2001, but the situation has become even worse since then. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, I know for a fact that it was possible for students to live in share accommodation, comfortably, if modestly, on government Austudy payments alone, without them needing to work. This was true even in inner Sydney suburbs.

Today's lack of free time in the lives of students prevents them from engaging effectively in social activism. The same can be said for unemployed people, who are required to spend much of their time fulfilling pointless obligations to seek work even where it doesn't exist. This political situation has made it far easier for governments to undemocratically impose many other policies that have also greatly harmed ordinary Australians.

There are many examples of such polices: privatisations (including the privatisation of retirement income (aka 'superannuation'), which even Bush could not impose upon the US), although the Chilean dictator Pinochet achieved this in the 1970s; the emasculation of the Whitlam government's Medibank and the public health system, the GST, reduction in employment opportunities; destruction of worker protection whilst importing foreign workers; and the overall decline in government services.

Among bad policies, we should also include the two invasions (1991 and 2003) of Iraq and the Afghan War, which began in 2001. The protests against war in Iraq were the biggest protests in Australian history since those against the Vietnam war, yet our governments went ahead with the Iraq invasion. There was little protest against the Afghanistan war, of course, because of what happened on September 11 of 2001. The situations Australian soldiers currently risk life and limb for in Iraq and Afghanistan are based upon pretexts since proven to be lies. The discovery of the lies which led to the invasion of Iraq is particularly well documented (and dramatised), by the way, in the recent movie "Fair Game", starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, about the 2003 Iraq war.

What happened to protests against war in Australia? I know the answer. It is too complicated to go into in this article. Suffice to say here, that we no longer hear much against wars. The last person to raise a profile on this issue was dissed by Jon Faine and the Prime Minister herself before disappearing from mainstream media view. I refer, of course, to Kevin Bracken.

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According to Professor Glyn Davis, for only one brief shining moment, from 1974 to 1988, was university education free. Otherwise access has always been governed by fees. However, before HECS, fees were minimal.

Until 1974 there were Commonwealth and state scholarships. This meant living frugally, but students had a living allowance that meant they could study full time.

Ironically, many of our politicians who took advantage of free tertiary education are now guilty of restricting it to those from families who can afford to give a home and financial support to students. The cost burden of university education, plus housing, means only the well-heeled can afford a profession.

China constitutes about 27 per cent of the market and an even larger slice of revenue -- more than $6 billion. Overseas students contacted by The Australian were waiting for Skills Australia to release its review of the migration points system, especially the new priority Skilled Occupation List, which was expected to tighten the number of courses that lead to residency.

Are our universities really attractive education-wise, or are they attractive as a path to PR?

Education is the country's second-biggest export sector after resources. It is also a route of least resistance to a "big Australia" (ignoring the impoverished asylum seekers who don't qualify) and economic/population growth.