Lifelong learning could be nipped in the bud under university changes

Australians like to learn. According to data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), last year alone an estimated 2.9 million people were enrolled in formal study. Approximately 1.2 million of these students were working towards a bachelor, master or even a doctoral degree at one of Australia’s universities.

Although most students around campus are in their teens or twenties, there is a growing cohort that has largely been left out of the discussion so far. They are the ones who attend evening classes or study online. And when they are not with their nose in a book there is a good chance they are at work or looking after the kids. They are officially known as ‘mature-age students’, although I would rather call them ‘achievers’: hardworking men and women who refuse to resign themselves to their fate but rather roll up their sleeves and improve their knowledge and skills to advance their careers and ultimately advance the nation.

And their numbers are steadily rising. According to the same ABS data, more than 17 per cent of all university students are now aged 35 and over. It’s no coincidence that online education providers such as Open Universities Australia (OUA) have grown considerably over the past few years. In fact, they are so successful that higher education providers are jumping on the bandwagon by offering online courses under their own banner. As an online tutor of more than five years, I have had the privilege of teaching many adults who realise that lifelong learning is the key to success. Lifelong learning is the future – or at least should be.

Changes to higher education funding proposed by the Abbott Government as part of the 2014 Federal Budget could very well throw us back into an era that would put true liberals to shame. Abbott plans to slash funding for university courses by 20 per cent and expose students to potentially large increases in their debts with the removal of all caps on the fees universities can charge. Even the Prime Minister himself admits he can’t guarantee that prices won’t double. Sure, you can always take out a HECS-HELP loan. But with interest rates of up to of 6 per cent this is hardly of any consolation. The prospect of a mountain of debt will make not only school-leavers but also many adults think twice before they enrol at university, whether online or on-campus. Any ambition to upskill will simply be nipped in the bud. You can spend your money only once after all.

As the Abbott Government is making it more difficult for ordinary Australians to obtain a university degree, they not only blatantly betray long-standing liberal principles of equality and opportunity for all, they also show a concerning lack of foresight. Studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) confirm that lifelong learning is vital to a prosperous nation, socially and economically. It provides people with essential tools for personal development, social integration and participation in the global economy. Australia is no exception. With a workforce that will now be expected to work up till 70, Australia needs to ensure that their knowledge and skills are always up to date.

The Abbott Government may think they are doing the nation a favour by cutting higher education funding but they may be shooting themselves in the foot. People who lack the knowledge, skills and courage to move on are likely to stay in the same job for too long. Consequently, the labour market will stiffen and competitiveness stalls. Tony and his classmates should probably do their homework again.

Niels Kraaier
GUPSA President

This opinion piece was previously published on Brisbane Times.