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Slogans are for bogans

This morning I woke up, and, apart from the various Sunday-morning-but-going-to-uni thoughts I also noticed (not for the first time) a sticker in the room Iím sleeping in, which read: "Girls can doÖanything."

Now, obviously, this is intended to be taken as a statement affirming womenís rights to engage in any occupation they wish. But, if you didnít know the social context behind such slogans, you could easily read it instead as a statement of girls having an erratic temperament and unpredictable nature. But we wonít, will we?

Thinking of this, also made me think of my friend and officemate back home, Richard. Richard is a Capital C Conservative (and frequently a Capital S Stirrer, too) and enjoys taking part in his right wing politics. Richard had immense fun once joining in a protest. This particular protest was a "no fees for degrees" protest.

For any readers who are unfamiliar with the various official expenses a student occurs in an Australian University, they are divided into two parts. The first is a fee for the actual course and the subjects taken, and the second is a fee for the privilege of attending said institution. The first component is, at the moment, called HECS, and involves a student incurring a debt while the government pays the fees upfront. Then, once the student graduates and joins the slogging masses workforce and earns above a critical amount, they have a small amount of the debt garnished from their wages. This debt is index linked and so does not increase in real terms. Now, the devil is in the details as far as how fair or otherwise this system is, but I think most people would agree that, dollar-for-dollar spent by the student, this is a much fairer system than full upfront fees. Also, given that a student receives an enormous personal benefit from studying and having an education, and so, I believe, it is reasonable that the student contributes rather than having it handed to them on a silver platter. The other thing about this debt is that, because it provides no barrier other than psychological, it does not prevent any student who wants to study from doing so. These are the fees which are frequently protested against.

The second fee which is levied on students is an amenities and services fee, or a student union fee. This is generally upfront and costs $3-400 per year. This money is then used to support various campus activities and services, such as child care, sports and other clubs, union propaganda and student politiciansí salaries.

In my view, the HECS fee is good Ė it enables anyone who wants to study to study, without having to worry about money for the course. They still have to find money to live and eat, but they would have to do so anyway. This other fee, on the other hand, generally hits hardest at those who can least afford it. There are exceptions, such as single mothers who get 2 or 3 times their fee back in child care. But in general, the people who are best placed to take advantage of this are the well off students who wonít have to work ridiculous hours in addition to studying in order to survive. These students are able to join a host of clubs and societies, go on subsidised activities, and have the time to enjoy the bounty of free food available because of a universally applied fee. The student who is working two or three jobs (I once had a student who had 4, but the 4th was to pay for the mobile phone, but thatís one for another day) doesnít have time to take advantage of the wide range of activities and services available. Imagine what an extra dollar a day in their pocket would do. If they then had the inclination, they would have this money they could spend on the relevant activities, so they are no worse off, anyway.

Given the relative effect of each of those on equity and access, which fees would you support, and which would you oppose? Well, these protests by the so-called left wing members of campus life (I find it hard to ascribe true left wing values to middle class students who want to ensure inequitable fees are levied on all students, while removing the equitable ones) are aimed against any upwards readjustment of HECS costs (even those which also include increasing the repayment threshold, so that, in real terms, the effective cost to the student goes down). The protests generally consist of simplistic slogans such as "No fees for degrees" (said by holding on to the no for a couple of syllables with a slight downwards inflection followed by fees said quickly with an upwards inflection, for said quickly and neutrally and degrees said as dígreeeze with the end being an upward inflection) and various repetitive chants involving swearing. Itís nice to know the benefits of an education havenít flowed on to such ridiculous notions such as presenting argument clearly and lucidly. (Personally, I donít have to. Iím an engineer!)

At one of these rallies, some Young Liberals came to lend their support. They even handed out fliers titled ďNo Fees For DegreesĒ and got protesters to help hand them out. Once more, showing the value of an education to encourage you to read something before handing it out, the protesters had helped hand out large numbers of these fliers before the protest organisers found out and got them to stop because, gasp, it was about the abolition of the upfront union fee.

Itís nice to know that we will defend abstract entities of dubious worth at the expense of affordable education for all.

Anyway, the point of this post was how one should always try to look at the message not the headline. No, wait, the point of this is that it is 11:15PM, Iím tired, Iím hungry, Iíve been in the lab all day (itís Sunday) and I am waiting for just my 7th data point of the day to reach steady-state, so that I can pack up and go. I will add that my lack of results wasn't helped by spending an hour trying to get the camera working, only to discover that I had it on the wrong port! And its cold and wet outside, despite being Brisbane, and Iíll freeze by degrees.

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