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By Gabe Gooding, President of the WA Division of the National Tertiary Education Union.

Many of us remember our university days with fondness, but today’s Uni students are facing a far different experience.

Today they are accumulating debt, which in some cases will be financially crippling for years to come, and are working multiple jobs just to support their studies in this new world of “user pays”… for everything.

Today, they are no longer students, they are clients and consumers, engaged in a cold financial transaction with their university. Where we attended tutorials with 8-12 others in which we could ask questions and engage in debate – today, if there is a tutorial at all, there are 50 people in it and it might as well be another lecture.

The opportunity to learn through discussion has simply gone. Today subjects commonly have 300 students enrolled, and the staff have been so cut they simply don’t have the time to take a practical interest in the welfare of individual students.

Similarly members of the university communities in WA remember the days when academic staff had sufficient time to get to know their students, to help them, and guide them through their education. To instil in them a love of knowledge and a life time commitment to learning, and just as importantly had the time to engage in the research that drives modern society.

What triggered this recollection and fond remembrance of the days when Uni was not just a way to get a job and ‘develop skills’ but was a rite of passage where young people had the time to grow as well as to learn, was the recent announcement that UWA, the State’s premier institution, is cutting staff in two key areas: biomedical science and engineering.

Many young Western Australians will have been encouraged to enrol in degrees in biomedical science and engineering as two of the vital growth areas for the State, yet now UWA is withdrawing resources from those very areas. Why?

Well it’s not because student numbers are down, these are growth areas. It’s because UWA has withdrawn funding from frontline teaching to subsidise other areas of its activity. You may well ask “Why would they do that?” or “What is more important to a university than teaching well”?

It seems UWA, like all universities, now behaves as if it were a trading corporation not a vital piece of public infrastructure established to provide free education, train professionals and advance knowledge.  At UWA, the discussion about resourcing is about the $ per EFTSL (equivalent full time student load) not about what dedicated staff can offer to students as young individuals with a passion and a right to learn.

UWA and the other WA universities behave like this because Federal Governments of all persuasion have simply failed to ensure that funding keeps pace with costs. Federal government funding per student has been declining in real terms for years.

University workers are not highly paid – their pay increases are modest (at UWA this year it is 3%, barely keeping pace with inflation and definitely not covering their increased utility bills!). They, like nurses and teachers, work because they are dedicated professionals who love what they do.

The consequence of UWA’s actions will be rising student to staff ratios, less opportunity for students to talk to their lecturers, reduced capacity for research, and inevitably a decline in the quality of education offered to students. The long term effect on society and the State can be well imagined, if nothing else our capacity to produce engineers for the boom will be greatly diminished.

Students, their parents and the wider WA community could be forgiven for asking whatever happened to the notion that WA’s universities should act as high quality, accessible, publically funded institutions that operate in the public interest and for the public good?

And whatever happened to the notion that uni was where you were set free, not a place where you were chained to debt?

.This article first appeared on Wangle.

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