Education in brief: make it fairer, make it free

Big ideas are floated for the future of Australia's higher education sector but international students are still getting a raw deal.

Calls for free uni

Last month’s education in brief was all about the Budget and feeling the pinch. We looked at the Federal Budget’s modest allowance for arts education, the rising cost of living and the even more soaring costs of school and uni fees. Then there was the 7.1% indexation of HECS/Help debts on 1 June 2023. No wonder we were darkly contemplating the winter solstice.

It was welcome light at the end of the tunnel then, to see the Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University, Professor Duncan Maskell, calling for free university education for domestic students in Australia. Joining the Greens, Socialists and student unions, Maskell used his annual address to call on the Albanese Government to abolish university fees for domestic students and resurrect the 50-year-old policy of former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

In case you’re young and unlucky enough not to remember, university was free for Australian students from 1974 to 1989. Then Labor reintroduced fees and unrolled the HECS scheme.

Maskell, himself a working class beneficiary of free tertiary education in the UK (and incidentally the highest paid vice chancellor in Australia), said that university fees and the accompanying deferred loan schemes had not helped more students from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds to enter university, and admitted that if he’d been required to take out a loan he would certainly not have gone to university.

As reported by the The Guardian, Maskell said, ‘What we have done by normalising the business of the students paying their university fees, is to entrench in our culture the idea that university education is only of private benefit to individuals – not public benefit to societies. This is a gravely mistaken emphasis.’

Since Labor’s election win in 2022, the higher education sector has been engaged in vigorous discussions ahead of significant reforms. An interim report is imminent.

The problems of inequity are central to the discussions. The latest research from Innovative Research Universities shows Australia is falling short by 25,000 of the 2030 target for 20% of enrolments to be students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Just in case you thought free higher education was a ‘pigs might fly’ dream, countries such as Germany, Sweden, Poland, Chile, Mexico, Latvia and Estonia offer it free for domestic students, while in New Zealand, the first year of study is free. And, in Norway, it’s free for anyone from anywhere.

Make uni course materials free?

Another idea that’s gaining traction is that of making course materials free for all to access. Over at The Conversation, Richard F Heller argues that a certain proportion of educational resources generated by publicly funded universities should be made public and freely available. Heller cites international precedents, as well as the Productivity Commission’s March 2023 report recommending that the government require ‘all universities to provide all lectures online and free’ to increase transparency in teaching performance and encourage online learning.

This would not prevent students from actually enrolling in university, according to advocates of free materials, because institutions sell credentials not materials. And with the rise of AI, such credentials are set to become even more important as a check against cheating, plagiarism and the outright fantasies the bots are known to sometimes indulge in. Perhaps we’re set to see more oral examinations and spoken theses defences.

Read: Creatives with ADHD: how a coach can help

Another interesting piece at The Conversation looks at how some Australian uni students approached AI in their first semester with ChatGPT. The study cited was of a smallish group (78 students and 32 academics) but suggests this initial phase contained much confusion and suspicion, and some tempered excitement. More respondents are invited to have their say about AI in education here.

More sad stories, more international students exploited

The Age reports that employers are still exploiting international students, say advocates and lawyers. Some students say they are paid as little as $10 an hour as some businesses take advantage of their need to work more hours than they are legally allowed or their lack of knowledge of entitlements.

Also at The Age, universities and Australia’s biggest student housing provider are using a loophole to evade renter protections for students.

Arts Learning Festival for students and schools

The Arts Learning Festival celebrates the importance of arts in education, with innovative interactive and virtual events for students and schools that bring together Australian and international artists to deliver events with deep connections to the curriculum.

Hosted by Independent Schools Victoria (ISV), but open to schools from all sectors, the Arts Learning Festival was first held in 2017. It takes place every second year and the 2023 iteration happens in three phases: May, July and October.

The Term 3 events in the program include painting with chocolate in Anime in Chocolate (years 7-10), Helen Johnson’s Postcard to my Future Self painting masterclass (years 9 and 10), and Mia Salsjö’s Sound & Sight-Art Architecture & Music (years 9-11).

There’s also a Student Film Festival calling for five-minute student film entries in five year-level categories from Prep to Year 12. The closing date is Friday 1 September 2023.

In case you missed our recent education stories

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She was previously a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk