By Rebecca Trigger
Students have taken to the streets in Perth this afternoon as part of a national protest against plans to overhaul the education system which they say will make it accessible only to the elite.
Students are rallying around the country against measures including the deregulation of university fees, which they say will push costs up.
With chants of “they say ‘cut backs’ we say ‘fight back'”, the students voiced their disappointment in the Abbott government’s reforms, which they say will drive up the cost of university education in Australia.
The Federal Government has uncapped the rates universities can charge for degrees.
Student unions say it could force the cost of a tertiary degree to more than $100,000.
The interest rate on student loans will also increase, and the income threshold for when students need to start paying the money back will be lowered.
National Union of Students WA branch president Sarah Ross said the change will deter students from lower socio-economic backgrounds accessing higher education.
“It will deter students from low socio-economic demographics who will just not be able to afford it,” she said.
“It will marginalise people that we should be getting into higher education.
“Education should be a means to escape poverty, not to further entrench it.”
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She said the unpegging of the student loan interest rate meant students would have no idea what kind of debt they would graduate with.
“It will mean universities will become elite, and charge increasingly higher fees,” she said.
“We’ll see a division between students who can afford to pay the higher fees, and students from poorer backgrounds, and we’ll see a division in the quality of education.”
She described the decision by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne to cancel a planned visit to Geelong’s Deakin University today because of security concerns as “cowardly”.
“I think if they’re going to make these policy announcements they need to be willing to face the consequences, and be willing to face the people that these policies will affect,” she said.
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WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said there was no question increased fees and uncapped student debt would deter people from going to university.
He also said he believed the issue could take the nation to an early election.
“It’s even more out of control than the system in the United States,” he said.
“There will be people graduating potentially with $100,000 debt or higher.
“Australia has one of the best tertiary education systems in the world but it is being bled dry.”
Simon Aplin, who is studying anthropology and sociology at the University of Western Australia, said with the worsening economic outlook in Australia he was apprehensive about carrying an increased debt load.
“It’s just disillusioning,” the 18-year-old said.
“I know a lot of people who really had high hopes they would do really well and be able to transfer to Melbourne University, but because it’s one of the elite universities, if they do escalate fees, they will just become unpayable.
“If you’re not from a rich background your dreams of going to a good university and getting a respected degree are just going out the window.”