Taxing learning

Maurie Mulheron

A few years ago, on the last school day of the year, I was sitting at my desk in the principal’s office. I heard a knock and looked up to recognise Marija*, one of our year 12 girls who had just completed her HSC. I was pleased to see her as she had received an excellent set of HSC results that had been released earlier that week.

In one subject, Chemistry, she had topped the class and I had been told by the year adviser that she had received an exceptional university entrance score. This was all the more remarkable as only five years earlier Marija had arrived from Macedonia, with very little English, a refugee along with her family from the dreadful conflict that had followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Marija told me that she had just returned her textbooks and asked if I would sign her school reference. I invited her in and as I was scanning the reference before signing it, congratulated her on her excellent examination results. I had a faint memory that Marija had told me at her enrolment interview that she had wanted to go to university to become a chemist, just like a favourite aunt back in Macedonia, so I asked her if she was excited about starting university. It was an assumption made in haste.

She seemed embarrassed by the question and I felt uncomfortable. She told me that her parents would not be allowing her to go to university. They had already too much debt, she explained, and were afraid of a HECS bill they might receive. Nothing would persuade them, she told me. Instead, Marija would work to assist the family but she was pleased that she might be able to go to TAFE.

Marija’s story keeps playing out in my mind as I think about the attacks on TAFE by both state and federal governments. As the Abbott Government moves to dismantle the system of higher education as we know it, no longer will entry into a public university be determined on students’ academic ability but rather on their capacity to pay. In the new privatised higher education market merit may matter but money will dominate.

There will be so many more Marijas as the situation worsens. So much loss of human capacity and potential. A loss to the individual, a loss to the nation.

But a question that many people must be asking is, how can this happen in a country as wealthy as Australia?

The market now seems to dominate all aspects of life with boundaries between public and private breaking down. We are seeing public assets turned into private wealth, but that wealth is increasingly concentrated into the hands of very few.

In this context, I’d like to put the education cuts, in particularly the cuts to the fifth and sixth years of Gonski funding, in perspective.

This year, the combined wealth of Australia’s richest 10 Australians is $73.72 billion. That is five times more than what six years of Gonksi funding would deliver to schools. Ten people as opposed to the 3.5 million students in all schools across the nation.

The Business Review Weekly's BRW Richest 200 list puts their wealth at $196.6 billion this year, up from $176.8 billion last year. Just the increase in their wealth alone in one year is $19.8 billion. One year’s wealth for 200 individuals is 1.3 times more than the six years of Gonski funding for 3.5 million children.

Australia’s largest coal mining company Glencore Xstrata gained $15 billion in revenue over the past three years. This one company’s revenue is $500 million more than the cost of six years of Gonski. Earlier this year the Sydney Morning Herald (June 27) argued the Swiss-based company had engaged in aggressive tax avoidance in Australia.

Recent research undertaken by the Australia Institute showed that the mining industry has received more than $17.6 billion in government subsidies and financial assistance. But this did not stop the mining industry and the Business Council successfully lobbying the Abbott Government to repeal the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

Just cuts to the growth in spending on schools funding will cost schools almost $30 billion over the next 10 years by halving the indexation rate as stipulated in the Australian Education Act 2013. Abbott’s cuts to schools funding are scheduled to continue each and every year until 2025.

Years ago at a Federation rally, someone held a placard that said, “Education cuts don’t heal”. In current times, these words resonate even more.

What kind of government would stifle the hopes and aspirations of young people by cutting schools funding and, at the higher education end, replace a mining tax with a learning tax?

Perhaps somewhere an older Marija could answer the question.

*Name changed