From the Archives, 1988: Students take to the streets over fees

First published in on March 30 & June 7, 1988
Students take to the streets over fees

More than 3,000 college and university students marched through Sydney yesterday to protest against the introduction of tertiary fees and the Government’s Green Paper on higher education.

“Putting their message across... student protesters in George Street before yesterday’s march.”

Greg White

Traffic was disrupted by the demonstration which wound along George Street to Sydney Square.

The march was the first significant action organised by the newly formed National Union of Students (NUS) and focused on a report which will recommend options facing the Government on fees, graduate taxes and a corporate levy.

The report, by the former NSW Premier Mr Wran, will be presented to the Government after Easter.

The education vice-president of the NUS, Ms Kiri Evans, said a user-pays system of financing higher education through either fees or a graduate tax is not needed if government funding is maintained at the present percentage of GDP.

“Education should be accessible to all”, reads a sign held by a protesting student.

Greg White

“If the Labor Party is searching for the sources of public discontent they can start by listening to the 300,000 tertiary students who are threatened with fees,” she said.


OVER the brain-dead body of the Left, the ALP has finally dropped its absurd committment to free tertiary education. Yesterday’s decision by the ALP national conference paves the way for the introduction of the tertiary education tax. The proposed tax is an inefficient form of tertiary fee – but it is miles better than nothing, and re-establishes the principle that tertiary education should be partly paid for by the recipient.

Tertiary education should not be free, precisely because it is not universal. The majority of people who avail themselves of it are from middle-class households. They will, as a result of tertiary education, have their own earning power enhanced. Tertiary fees in whatever guise will make the taxation-expenditure system more progressive. The Left’s opposition to tertiary fees runs counter to its own tradition.

And claims that a graduate tax would deter poorer students from undertaking tertiary education ring a little hollow when they come from people who advocate higher personal income tax rates for people on high incomes. The argument that a very small increase in the marginal tax rate will destroy the incentive to go to university is exaggerated New Right.

Students gather at Town Hall on March 29, 1988.

Greg White

The legitimate objections to the proposed tertiary education tax are that it will not recover enough of the cost from the students – who benefit the most from the education – and that it is inefficient. An undisguised tertiary fee, with student loans for those with poor or unsupportive parents, would be better because it would be collected by the universities. Universities could more easily set their own rates and those with high reputations could prosper and expand. And within universities, departments that were able to command high fees and attract money to the university would be more likely to expand.

No-one would argue that the commercial value of courses should determine the direction of universities. But nor should the allocation of resources within a university be driven purely by past decisions and academic politics. There should be a lively and healthy competition between Australian universities – to get the best lecturers and researchers, and to offer the best courses. There should be, but there isn’t.

Yesterday’s ALP resolution talked of placing a levy on business to fund tertiary edu-cation. A moment’s reflection suggests that a levy on business is an inefficient way of taxing the community in general and graduates in particular. True, if tertiary education is provided free, business gets its graduates for less than it would if fees were charged. But if business is taxed for the graduates it uses, it will only pass the tax on – to its customers (converting the levy into a kind of consumption tax), and to its employees (in the form of lower salaries for graduates). Taxing the graduates directly is very much more efficient. Charging fees is more efficient still. The levy on business is unlikely to get anywhere, except perhaps as an exercise in hypothecation.

Free tertiary education was a bold experiment. But it has not changed the socio-economic profile of university students as much as was hoped. It has made the tax-expenditure system less progressive than it should be. The growth of population and the increase in school retention rates mean that more tertiary places will be required in the near future. The provision of those places free of charge cannot be justified on equity grounds.

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