Interviewed for the New Left Project, political philosopher Noam Chomsky identifies what ought to be universally known and acknowledged: namely, that university fees are central to sustaining the class system. This occurs not only through privileging those whose parents are able to pay 'upfront' fees or contribute to them, or support their offspring whilst studying, but by directing students into the most lucrative professions or sectors:
'Take something as simple as raising tuition fees – it's much more true in the US than elsewhere, but in the US tuition is now sky high – in part it selects things on a class basis but more than that, it imposes a debt burden. So if you come out of college with a big debt you're not going to be free to do what you want to do. You may have wanted to be a public interest lawyer but you're going to have to go to a corporate law firm …'
This limitation of flexibility, lack of scope to decide and be able to do what one might be best disposed to, is about freedom and its denial. As Chomsky observes, those in power do not approve of those without it having the ability or scope to upset the status quo: the idea of freedom 'is very frightening for those who have some degree of privilege and power and … that shows up in the education system too'.
Although primarily directed to his own country, as Chomsky recognises and remarks, the problem goes way beyond the US. Australia is well implicated.
For Australia, this follows first through re-imposition of university fees in the 1980s, denying or making immeasurably difficult access to higher education for those without resources to pay upfront fees or lacking family backing that reduces the impact of fees and provides support for living expenses. University fees shut out working-class youth and potential mature age students or has them graduating with a high debt-burden. In turn, the policy results in an emphasis upon degrees in fields that most readily accommodate repayment of the debt. Fees become a dictator not only of who can attend university, but of what those who do make it should do with their education and the learning opportunities university should provide them.
Now, the problem is not isolated to universities. It has spread through the entire tertiary sector and into vocational and educational training (VET), with an emphasis on fees and a push toward providing courses the sole object of which is money-making employment. Worse, the trend is toward a private sector take-over of TAFE or, at minimum, TAFE being downgraded so that it is simply a competitor in the educational field, with private sector 'educators' being given carte blanch. Now, money-making is not only the aim of educational provision in terms of the outcomes for students, it is to be the sole aim of all VET providers.
Unlike universities (federally funded), the major funding for TAFE has come from state government budgets. In 2012, however, federal and state governments reached an agreement whereby millions of federal dollars would go to the VET sector, on the basis of increased student numbers and improved vocational training. Despite this agreement, however, Victoria cut $300 million from TAFE, followed by similar or proposed cuts in Western Australia and other states. This attack on TAFE has come in the face of its significant role and contribution to education and training. Funds taken from TAFE are going to private providers, despite private providers' poor track record in supplying solid courses, high-level skills training (or any training), positive educational outcomes or any education outcomes at all.
In Victoria, the changes have led to huge rises in student fees, with courses cut and institutions closed or at risk. Consequently, New South Wales says its programme is designed differently, with loans to be available for students who take government subsidised diploma courses. So TAFE students will face the debt-burden confronting university students, with the NSW emphasis correspondingly to be on courses approved by government, this in turn to be determined in consultation with industry and 'labour market research'. This means that courses in arts and humanities will be eliminated or able to continue only with increased fees – fees to be paid upfront without subsidy or support through loans or other financial underpinning. Arts and humanities students will therefore face no government debt-burden, but may find no courses available to them, whether because the courses no longer exist or they do not have the financial means pay or to survive whilst studying.
The emphasis is wholly upon education and training for jobs. The notion that education and training has a broader purpose has no place in this approach. For TAFE and other providers, the NSW government calls this 'lifting their game'.
Yet research shows that TAFE has traditionally played a disproportionate role in VET and the benefits it provides to Australian infrastructure as a whole, when 'infrastructure' is defined and recognised not only as roads, bridges and buildings, but as including intellectual development and the accumulation of skills.
Christopher Stone of the Centre for Policy Development points out that amongst other positive contributions, TAFE caters to disproportionately high numbers of students living in rural and remote areas, students with a disability or 'long-term condition', and students from working-class and disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage. Economic and social benefits accrue ultimately to Australia as a whole, for his research:
'… shows the role VET plays in both addressing disadvantage as well as the substantial government return on its investment. Returns on investment have been estimated as more than six to one for NSW TAFEs. And a potential two to one return on investments in the VET sector nationally. Beyond the purely economic arguments, there is an even stronger case that it provides substantial social benefits by giving a forum for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their options.'
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.