A Hong Kong student asked me, “Why does the Australian government want to shut down student associations?” “Even Beijing isn’t doing that!”
Maybe the answer to the question is that while Beijing seems to be becoming more pragmatic and less ideological, Australia is heading in the other direction.
In Hong Kong, students are able to learn about democracy and build networks by joining any of dozens of university backed clubs and societies. In Australia, the Howard government has legislated to effectively close down all university students
associations because Ministers believe they contain critics of government policies.
It’s certainly true that some Australian university staff and students question government actions such as:
• the signing of a free trade agreement which has shifted the trade balance even further towards the US,
• anti union legislation which effectively makes strikes illegal
• anti terrorist legislation which allows detention without trial
• anti sedition legislation which makes Article 23 proposals look tame.
Australian government ministers are angry that their policies have not been embraced by what they dismiss as “intellectual elites”. After all, they received rapturous support from the Murdoch dominated, mostly US owned Australian press! The Australian government stays ahead in opinion polls, in part thanks to an economy bouyed by booming coal sales to China, a well nourished fear of terrorism and a hopeless and helpless parliamentary opposition. But after ten years in office, the government parties gained control of both houses of parliament and they feel they can abandon restraint. So now its payback time! Perceived enemies such as conservationists, unionists, students and universities are high on the policy hate list.
But there is a snag here. Education makes big money and has become Australia’s fourth largest export. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has been trilling about all of the money to be made in Asia, in particular China which is Australia’s largest source of foreign students. But when you see how much better resourced Hong Kong Universities are than their Australian counterparts, you have to wonder how long Alexander’s gold rush will last.
In Australia, ideology has won over pragmatism. Education is seen as being about profit and private gain rather than public good. The government has slashed real spending on universities, forcing them to live on domestic fees and export earnings. As a result, only the very best Australian universities have facilities comparable to nearly all of Hong Kong’s universities. The worst Australian universities have campuses which are converted office blocks, provide empty libraries and employ mostly part time teaching staff. The rest of Australia’s declining tertiary sector can’t compare with the new Chinese institutions springing up not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in regional cities like Zhuhai or Shantou.
Professional Australian academics are more experienced than many in Asia, but they are getting older, with most of them in their mid fifties. With increasing political interference in teaching and research, even more funding cuts, the stacking of university councils with business people, new industrial relations restrictions and poor salaries, many of these Australian academics will be opting for early retirement. The smart ones will be seeking work in Asia.