Student Debt: Facts and Predictions

Last night I tweeted this image.

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It’s from the Greens’ website, What Will My Degree Cost? You type in some variables and it spits out a figure that’s supposed to be your predicted net debt if you want to go to uni under the radically different higher education model proposed in this year’s federal budget. The above graphic was generated when I put in that I wanted to study medicine and hadn’t yet begun my degree.

As many people have pointed out: no, it’s not precisely accurate. That’s not because it’s ‘Labor-Green propaganda’ or because ‘Lefties are dumb’ or even because we don’t have mathematics degrees. It’s because there are no certainties upon which projections can be based. However, the makers of the website have discussed the underlying assumptions in their model here.

Fee deregulation literally means that universities can charge whatever they want for their courses. The VC of UTAS has recently said that, with the drop in federal funding, there will be a $30 million gap in the budget that will somehow need to be filled. The VC of the University of Melbourne recently said that course fees are likely to rise up to 61% – and that was only for ‘average’ courses like Arts and Science. Many others have said that course fees will almost certainly rise significantly, including The Conversation, Gay Alcorn, Greg Jericho, and Ross Gittins.

Of course, until deregulation actually happens, we won’t know exactly what the course fees will be. It’s likely that some universities will charge higher fees than other universities. Higher fees may or may not reflect a more prestigious or higher quality course offering. We simply don’t know yet.

What we do know is what has happened in other countries. In the USA, an undergraduate degree at Harvard, an Ivy League school, will cost you $44,000 per year. A post-graduate law course (remember they will only let you study law if you already have a bachelor’s degree) will set you back $54,000 per year. The post-graduate MD course at Harvard will cost a similar $52,000 per year. This is likely what we’re heading for as we proceed towards deregulation and ‘free market’ ideologies that prioritise competition over fairness.

The tweet containing the image above has, at last count, been re-tweeted 355 times and been ‘favourited’ 94 times.

This has gotten me in a lot of trouble today as I became a punching bag for LNP die-hards and rabid tories. People accused me of being stupid, naive, of falling for ‘anything plonked in front of [me]’ and generally being gullible and unthinking. They said that it was ‘impossible’ that the figures in the above graphic could possibly be true, and that it was simply scare-mongering by the Greens and Labor. Basically: I’ve spent today being abused on the internet.

I don’t mind that. But it did get me thinking about what the actual mathematics involved are. It’s all speculation, as I mentioned above, but it would be useful to have some working shown rather than just an automatically-generated figure at the end of a web page.

So I decided to do some maths. Here’s what I came up with.

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This is what the first 36 years of your working life would look like if you completed a medical degree that cost you $40,000 per year and accrued interest at 6% per annum. It also assumes the new pay-back thresholds (between 4% and 8% of your yearly income). Based off this modelling, it would take you 61 years of work to pay back the debt, and by the time you’re debt-free, you will have paid a total of $1,584,000, most of which is simply the effect of compound interest.

The results are almost as dire if we use a model where the cost of a medical degree is $30,000 per year. It takes 36 years of work to pay back the debt and the total you will have paid by the end is $581,932.78.

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Again, while the degree cost is only $150,000 for five years, it’s the compound interest that really gets you.

The point of all this is to say: I’m not relying on shonky mathematics or Labor-Green propaganda to make my point. In fact, the original image I tweeted is a pretty conservative estimate.

I admit that you’d have to be pretty stupid to only be paying the minimum threshold repayments on a debt like this, especially on salaries of upwards of $150,000 per year. On the other hand, even if, upon getting a steady job, you begin paying off $10,000 or $15,000 per year (a pretty signifiant portion of your income at this stage), your debt level will still peak at at least $200,000. Even if you continue paying off significantly more than the 8% of yearly income required by the legislative scheme – say $20,000 to $30,000 per year – it still takes at least ten years, and probably more like twenty, to clear the debt. Remember that the ‘salary’ column is your pre-tax income; the actual amount you have to live on will be significantly less when you account for income tax on top of your HECS contribution. It’s also significantly harder to make extra contributions to pay off the debt when, for example, you’re financially supporting someone else (e.g. a partner; a parent; a family member who is sick or disabled), if you have children, or if you’ve been lucky enough to buy a house and need to also pay off your mortgage.

I have a post in the works about the merits (or otherwise) of various models of university funding and costs which will be much more in-depth. For now, I just wanted to stick it to all the people who been saying that the claims on the How Much Will My Degree Cost website are outrageous or absurd.

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Joe Hockey’s New Mantra: Earn or Learn

Joe Hockey was ‘grilled’ on the ABC TV program Q & A last night, much to the glee of the audience members who lined up to take shots at Mr Hockey over last week’s budget. The clip above shows a young Tasmanian asking where young people are supposed to find jobs when the numbers of unemployed Tasmanians are so much higher than the available job vacancies. Mr Hockey refuses to answer the question, instead repeating the words, ‘if you’re under 30, we need you to earn or learn.’

Well, Mr Hockey, I’m 23 and I am both earning and learning, and I still can’t afford a $7 co-payment every time I go to the GP. Many Tasmanians, and in fact people all across the country, are engaging in higher education or looking tirelessly for work. Many people who have already completed the ‘learning’ part of their apparent obligation to the government are now struggling to find meaningful employment. In five years time, young people with professional qualifications will likely still have the same difficulties finding a job, except that they will also have three times the student debt that today’s graduates are saddled with.

Jobs do not magically appear out of the air just because people wish it. The government does not directly create jobs – although, counter to Mr Hockey’s assertion, the government (at all levels) does in fact employ many people – but it helps to shape the economic climate of the nation. The government’s own budget papers predict that rates of unemployment will actually increase over the next 12 to 18 months, before stabilising.

While we’re at it, it remains unclear to me why the government feels the need to establish young people as a separate class of persons, somehow less deserving of the government’s assistance. The six-month waiting period (and subsequent on/off eligibility) on Newstart and the ‘tightening’ of eligibility of the Disability Support Pension apply exclusively to under-30s and under-35s respectively. Joe Hockey himself makes it very explicit: ‘if you are under 30, we need you to earn or learn.’ Why is it so much more important that today’s young people are economically productive members of society? Why does this draconian requirement not apply to other generations? As a number of people (I think principally Greg Jericho) have pointed out, the proportion of unemployed young people is actually smaller when compared with unemployment in the general population. Yes, there are a small number of young people who do not wish to study or work. These people are a drain on the economy and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. However, most young people who are not (or soon will not be) in study or work are victims of circumstance. The jobs market, particularly for young people (who generally lack required experience), is in pretty bad shape right now, although there are geographic variances. Compounding the problem is the government’s proposed changes to HECS and student fees, which will discourage young people, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, from going to university. This is particularly the case when those young people believe that a university degree – that takes three or four years out of their life and can cost up to $100,000 – will make their chances of securing a decent job only marginally higher.

Forcing young people into poverty and desperation when they are supposed to be in the prime of their lives is morally reprehensible. If it truly is necessary to change how Newstart is paid to young people – an assertion I would dispute, but let’s assume for a moment – why not do it another way? How about paying unemployed under-30s Newstart unconditionally for the first six months of their unemployment. This would allow them to concentrate their full energy on finding a job, without having to worry about whether they’ll be able to afford food that week or whether they might get evicted from their rental property. People are much more likely to get a job when they’re showing up to interviews well-rested, well-fed, well-dressed and on time. These things are only possible, however, when you’ve got a regular income to rely on. If people haven’t found a job after six months, then by all means, restrict or reduce their payment. I still don’t think it will have been their fault that they haven’t found paid employment, but if the government is so desperate to reduce welfare spending, this is a much fairer way to do it. It would also mean encouraging young people to get jobs instead of punishing them for a situation over which they have no control. Although, put in context, perhaps the government is deliberately trying to be punitive.

In short: Mr Hockey, answer the damn question. Tell us where to find these magical jobs, because there are a lot of people out there who’d really appreciate the heads up.

The Letter I Wanted To Write To My Senators

My boyfriend came home crying on Budget Night. The nation of a Fair Go had just disappeared before his eyes. Joe Hockey’s speech took the Australia of opportunity, equality and shared prosperity and replaced it with an Australia that reserves the bounties of our nation for a privileged few. An Australia where your access to essential services like health and education is predicated on your ability to pay. An Australia that punishes people for their own disadvantage. A mean, selfish, ignorant Australia.

My boyfriend is 19 years old. He’s a second-year medical student, which means that he’s in class for up to 40 hours per week. He’s expected to put in another 20 hours of personal study each week to keep on top of the workload. In the minimal spare time he does have, he works for a taxi company, answering phones. They’ve recently cut staff and he now only works four hours per week, earning about $80. He gets Youth Allowance because he’s a full-time student and his parents aren’t in a position to financially support him. After rent is taken care of, the Youth Allowance amounts to just over $50 per week. He has tried to find another job and has been repeatedly knocked back – or flat-out ignored – by small businesses and by large employers, like Woolworths and Coles Group, alike.

I am 23 years old. I’m in the final year of my Arts-Law degree. I study hard to keep my academic results up, and I’ve been working hard in paid employment since I was 18, keeping a roof over my head, putting food on my table, and paying my taxes. My boyfriend and I live in a rented house near our Uni. Because I’m classed as independent, I get a greater rate of Youth Allowance than him. I also have the capacity to work more shifts, and thus also earn more that way. Without relying on my income, my boyfriend often has to dip into his modest savings into order to pay for day-to-day expenses. Our combined pre-tax income for this financial year will be just over $40,000, putting us in the lowest 20% of earnings in the country.

At the end of this year I will graduate from my degree and start looking for paid employment. Unfortunately the jobs market isn’t what it used to be. Two friends of mine, one with a PhD and one with an Honours degree, recently returned to study because they were unable to find work. Another friend, also with an Honours degree, works two days per week in a department store, because nobody will employ her to use the skills that she spent four years at University developing. Under Joe Hockey’s plan, if I am unable to find a job after graduation, both me and my partner will fall into poverty. With no government support I will not have an income, and there will be no money for food, no money for rent, no money for petrol, and certainly no money to pay for health care when GP visits cost $7 a pop.

Joe Hockey believes that this is my fault. He believes that if people who have spent their entire lives to date studying to gain qualifications can’t find a job, they just aren’t looking hard enough. The Government thinks that job-seekers’ standards are too high. The reality is that Minister Hockey’s standards are too high.

The reason that youth unemployment is as high as 25% in some parts of the country isn’t because young people are lazy, entitled, or afraid of getting their hands dirty. It’s because there are no jobs for them. People are actively looking for full-time work and they cannot find it. The Budget recognises that older Australians face age discrimination in the workplace and is offering a $10,000 incentive to employers to hire workers over the age of 55. Instead of recognising that young people face that exact same age discrimination, the government plans to blame young people for a job market and an economic system that actively disadvantages them.

Under this Budget, my partner will graduate from a medical degree with up to $100,000 of debt. Enormous reductions in hospital funding mean that he is less likely to be offered an internship placement. Without an internship position, he will never be a fully qualified doctor. If he is lucky enough to find a position and complete his training, he will be working in a hospital system that not only has less funding and fewer resources (including human resources like nurses) but that has to deal with increasingly sick patients. Look at any of the available evidence and you will see that out-of-pocket co-payments for GP visits, prescription medicines and medical services such as blood tests and X-rays actively discourage people from seeking medical treatment. The longer an illness is left untreated, the more expensive it is to deal with when help finally is sought.

I want the same things as other Australians. I want a secure place to live, I want a job that makes use of my skills and training, and I want a loving and healthy family. I do not mind paying taxes to support schools, to build hospitals, to maintain roads and to help those less fortunate than myself, but in order to pay taxes, I must first have a job. University used to be a ticket to a good job. Indeed, the HECS system is predicated on the idea that university graduates have a significantly higher lifetime earning potential. Initiatives such as Youth Allowance effectively ‘loan’ money to people in education and training on the understanding that this money will later be paid back to the government through income taxes. At the moment, however, the number of graduates is increasing while the number of jobs available to them is decreasing. Couple this with university fee deregulation and young people would be forgiven for wondering what the point of going to uni is, if at the end of your three, four or five years living in student poverty, you’ll have tens of thousands of dollars of debt and may still end up working an unskilled job in hospitality or manufacturing for not much more than minimum wage.

I have no doubt that this Budget, coupled with the very real possibility that I will not be able to find full-time work despite having tertiary qualifications, will not only negatively impact on my life but may actually directly lead to poverty. Australia has spent four decades implementing social safety net policies to protect and assist people who find themselves in unfair and unconscionable circumstances. The proposed changes to Newstart eligibility, the stricter conditions for Disability Support Pension recipients who are under 35, and the deregulation and uncapping of University fees are a direct assault on the young people of this country. We are supposed to be nurturing these people and encouraging them to fulfil their potential; instead the Government is trying to reserve power and privilege to a small number of citizens, people who already enjoy significant material wealth.

There is no budget emergency; our debt as a percentage of GDP is small on an international scale and this Budget will make literally no change to the amount of Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP over the next four years. I urge you to vote against the Budget in the Senate. Not only does it not save any money, it actively punishes people who are already disadvantaged. People who are chronically ill should not have to choose between buying essential medicines or buying food. Families of young people should not have to bear the burden of unemployment when that unemployment is the fault of the economy and not of the individual. Pursuing a medical degree should not be only possible if your parents are willing and able to support you through five years of full-time, intensive study. Opportunity should belong to everyone; the wealth of your family should not determine your access to healthcare or education, but that is the direction in which this Budget takes us. No child’s prospects in life should be determined by the identity or the financial means of their parents.

The reason I call this The Letter I ‘Wanted’ To Write is because this is far too long to put on one A4 page. Rest assured that I am, in fact, writing to all twelve Tasmanian senators to urge them to vote down the Budget Bill. You can find the contact details of Tasmanian senators here. If you’re from another state or territory, usually a Google search will provide you with sufficient details of how to reach your elected representatives. 

If you want more information about the actual facts and figures of the budget, there are good summaries here, here, here, and here, and also all over Twitter if you care to take a look.  

Joe Hockey’s Culture of Entitlement

The media has been doing a lot of scaremongering this week about the impending federal budget. Considering the noises being made by federal ministers, particularly treasurer Joe Hockey, about ‘deep cuts’ and the like, it’s probably fair enough. It certainly has been causing a lot of outrage on Twitter, not least because the money being cut from things like pensions and healthcare is, as it turns out, going to be used to buy a bunch of planes that don’t actually work. Before all of this started, we heard a lot from Minister Hockey about a ‘culture of entitlement’ that needed to end. In fact, Hockey’s been complaining about an ‘age of entitlement’ for a full two years now.

The victims of Abbott and Hockey’s rampage against the culture of entitlement will, as ever, be those already doing it tough. Hockey has all but admitted the government’s plan to raise the pension age to 70. Then there’s the new $6 GP co-payment which will affect those who are currently eligible to be bulk-billed. (Never mind the fact that most GPs will only bulk-bill you currently if you demonstrate financial need, for example by holding a Healthcare or Concession card from Centrelink.) No details on any particular areas of budget cuts have yet been released, but we are all waiting with bated breath for the budget announcement on May 13th. The government is allegedly using the Commission of Audit Report, to be released in full to the public next week, to direct their fiscal policy into the future.

Did anyone ever think that perhaps the ‘age of entitlement’ that Joe Hockey seems so concerned about is not so much about working-class Australians, but is in fact about those in our community doing well for themselves? Could it be that, rather than people who rely on Newstart or the Disability Pension to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables, it’s people like Joe Hockey himself who feel this overwhelming sense of entitlement?

Take this guy, for example. Despite being in the top 1% of wage earners in the country, he seems to feel entitled to label himself as ‘average’, perhaps even struggling. Never mind the fact that his meagre $21,000 left over after paying for all of life’s essentials is the same amount as my total taxable income for a year. You ‘only’ have $21k each year for holidays and/or savings? Boo hoo. Try living your life on that amount and then come back and talk to me about how hard it is to pay off a mortgage while putting two kids through private school.

How about Gina Rinehart? I think I could make a pretty good argument that she’s one of the most entitled people in the country. Who else could argue that welfare recipients are dragging this country into disastrous debt while being worth 29.17 billion dollars? And who could forget that time she said that workers should work harder for less money in order to compete with third-world producers? This is a woman who feels so entitled to her (mostly inherited) wealth that she has been embroiled in a court battle with her children over a trust for the measly sum of $4 billion. But still she continues to argue that it’s people receiving piecemeal government benefits who are the ‘entitled’ of this country.

Let’s talk about Joe Hockey himself. He’s repeatedly said that current pensioners need not fear any changes to their entitlements, as it is his generation who will bear the brunt of the proposed changes to pensions. Mr Hockey isn’t your average everyday Joe, though. As a Member of Parliament, his base salary is $195,130 per year. This is before we factor in the extra money that comes from holding a senior ministry position. Since 2004, federal Members have enjoyed superannuation contributions of 15.4% per annum – a little more than the compulsory 9.25% per annum that everyone else gets. In fact I doubt that Joe Hockey will ever need to rely on the aged pension, which in turn essentially means that he can retire whenever he likes. But by all means, talk about ‘your generation’ as if you share their future fate, Mr Treasurer.

We live in a Western social democracy. Part of our social contract with one another is that we sometimes have to help people who cannot help themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of the NDIS, we help people who, through no fault of their own, do not have the capacity to work for a living. Sometimes, as in the case of Newstart, we help people who are temporarily out of work. Sometimes, as in the case of the aged pension, we help people who have worked all their lives and who now need a bit of help keeping their heads above water in their final years of life. Sometimes, as in the case of Youth Allowance, we help people get food on the table while they are studying, so that in five or ten years time we have skilled workers in the community, paying taxes and contributing to the economy. And sometimes, as in the case of negative gearing for investment properties, we help people who already have lots of money make more money.

Which of those seems like the odd one out to you?

We have built a culture of social welfare. That much is undeniable. Subsidised medical care; safety nets for unemployed people, the disabled, the elderly and students; universal state-funded education: all of this is welfare. And we do it because it makes society better for everyone. It also upholds the human rights of everyone in the community – to be healthy, to have food and shelter, to have equal opportunity. People feeling entitled to their rights aren’t the problem. The problems come when people feel entitled to rip up this country in search of mineral wealth and expect not to have to share that wealth. When the government and the populace feel entitled to lock up innocent people, including children, for having the audacity to flee peril and attempt to come to this country on boats instead of on planes. When people feel that their tax dollars shouldn’t be used to pay for anything they don’t like or don’t use, despite us having some of the lowest taxes of the OECD nations. Yes, entitlement culture exists, but there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction punishing those already struggling. Instead, we should be questioning those doing well in our society, who seem to feel entitled to their position even when their success comes at a detriment to the rest of us.

A Quick Thought on Gender

Yesterday, while my boyfriend was in the shower, I was just hanging around on the internet, as I am prone to do when given free time. Following a trail of links that began on Tumblr, I found this article which then linked to this article. I thought both of them made good points, and when my boyfriend came back I asked him to read them so I could see what he thought.

Now, my boyfriend is a genuine certified Good Guy. So when I showed him the first article, his response was essentially to say ‘Yeah, I agree, but isn’t it all stuff we’ve heard before?’ On the one hand, it gives me hope that not all men are awful, but on the other hand, he also said something else. When I tried to assert to him that feeling the urge to catcall women on the street or otherwise provide unsolicited commentary on their appearance is misogynistic because we live in a world where women’s bodies exist for the benefit of men, and thus any presentation of the female body must automatically be an invitation upon men to provide judgement, he simply said, ‘construction workers aren’t that smart.’

I might be about to engage in some serious misrepresentation here, but I want to try to explain boyfriend’s point. He told me that men don’t think about cat-calling women in the way that women think about it. I said I’d been shouted at on the street a number of times, and he used a particular example of a bunch of young men in a ute. According to him, men don’t yell at women because they feel the need to compliment the individual woman; in fact, the individual woman is more or less irrelevant. The men who cat-call women in front of their friends do so as a show of dominant masculinity; a demonstration of strength and manliness designed to maintain or further their place in the social hierarchy. It’s not about respect or disrespect towards women, because women are seen as ‘other’. The men simply aren’t considering the feelings or reaction of the woman at all when making the decision.

As I pointed out to him, this is a great example of the patriarchy: the men may not intend to cause any harm in what they’re doing – they’re just not thinking about it very deeply – but if we were living in a culture which really valued women, we’d have been teaching men since they were small children that disrespecting people in this manner, regardless of their gender, is not okay. But regardless of who is right in this particular argument, one thing really stood out to me in the way that he had phrased his point: women are ‘other’. Further, they are not a part of the male social hierarchy and thus don’t understand how the act of harassing women fits in. Then I read this article about religious gender segregation and got thinking again.

We hear it all the time: opposites attract. Women and men fit together in a way that women and women or men and men simply don’t. Children need a mother and a father. Men are from mars, women are from venus. Men are leaders, women are nurturers. That’s all just off the top of my head and I could probably go on for hours. Why are we so obsessed with highlighting ‘differences’ between men and women? Why is it so difficult for us to see validity in people who choose to be somewhere on the gender spectrum that isn’t strictly ‘man’ or ‘woman’? Why is it only now that we’re starting to see equality of genders? Why are we unable to recognise that we are all people and that the similarities and differences between individuals are far more pronounced (and probably more interesting) that the broadly generalisable ‘differences’ between genders? So much of what we feel and think and experience is shared that it seems somewhat ludicrous to try to divide people into two ‘opposite’ groups based on their reproductive organs.

Trying to make sense of privilege and poverty

Recently a friend of mine went on a bit of a diatribe on Facebook about just how good we have it, here in Australia. This particular friend is currently in India; I’m not sure exactly what it is he is doing there but it may have something to do with teaching impoverished children how to read and write. It was sparked by a post he’d seen, directed at Prime Minister Gillard, where a young man complained that he was ineligible for Youth Allowance while studying at University, while “a person that lives their life on drugs and that has no intention of getting a job” is eligible for government assistance. My friend was absolutely scathing about Australians who complain about the ‘difficulties’ of life here or the exorbitant cost of living.

I want to defend those people. No, I don’t think it’s right to complain incessantly about what are, rather crudely, elsewhere called ‘first world problems’. I certainly do think that a large number of people need to pause, look around, and try to appreciate just how good they have it – not just compared with many other people in this world, but in and of itself. But these things aren’t simply caused by wilful ignorance and stupidity: they are actively encouraged by the society in which we live.

There are two kinds of poverty: absolute poverty (also known as extreme poverty), and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is a standard set by the World Bank; it approximately means that you live on a total of less than US$1.50 per day. Relative poverty is like, not being able to afford a computer while everyone else in your neighbourhood has a high-speed internet connection. In Australia, the poverty line has been set at 50% of the average median income.

When you’re more likely to compare yourself to Gina Rinehart than an anonymous Chinese sweat-shop worker, I can understand why you might feel like you’re being ripped off. If Ms Rinehart can become the richest person in the country by inheriting a financial empire – and then have the audacity to claim that ordinary Australians should be willing to work for poverty wages – why can’t I afford to buy a brand new car? The media have a vested interest in keeping us discontented. That is how advertising works: make people feel like they don’t have enough. To get people to buy things, you must keep them believing that they deserve a certain standard of living, and then get them to work towards that standard of living. Next step: profit! Not to mention the fact that the federal opposition continue to tell us about how difficult life is under the carbon tax and skyrocketing cost-of-living pressures. Never mind the fact that the cost of many of the essentials of life has either remained stable or actually decreased over the past decade (compared with the average wage): if the Opposition can convince us all that there is a widespread problem, then maybe they can win the next election by convincing us that they have a solution to that problem.

Yes, it is absolutely, shockingly ignorant to think that middle-class Australians are somehow having a hard time of it. But when our daily lives consist of news stories about super-wealthy people like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, when politicians tell us that we’re having trouble heating our houses through (incredibly mild) winters, or even when we feel a bit jealous over our next-door-neighbours brand new Ford SUV, it can be hard to put this back in perspective. Most of us do not travel to developing countries or view news stories about wars, famines, and natural disasters that afflict the global poor. The problem is that telling people that they’re oh-so-privileged to live the life they lead just isn’t profitable.

There’s an argument that providing welfare breeds a culture of entitlement. I think it’s a valid argument to make, but I also think that even if it is true, providing some kind of welfare is worth it. The problem comes when middle-class recipients of welfare masquerading as tax breaks start to believe that they are more entitled to their Family Tax Benefit than the long-term unemployed are to the money that literally allows them to eat and keep a roof over their head. Claiming that you are entitled to government benefits by virtue of being a university student while simultaneously denying the right of impoverished Australians to try to build a better life makes my head spin. These kind of people seem blissfully unaware of the fact that if you are born into disadvantage, it can be very difficult to find a decent, permanent job or obtain appropriate long-term housing. It’s much easier to advocate for the doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’ when your parents have coddled you all the way to university.

Yes, we live in an incredibly privileged society and yes, we need to stop sometimes and look around and understand how good we have it. But none of us lives in a vacuum; the way that we interact with society influences the way we make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Having a go at someone for acting entitled is valid, but there are larger things to blame than just their own sheltered ignorance.

Why I’m beginning to regret choosing UTas

With every day that goes by, UTas shows itself as an even more cynical and disillusioned institution. It seems utterly intent upon disenfranchising students and depriving them of the opportunity to obtain a good quality education.

Just today, we have had an announcement that nominations are open for the Student Representative Council, which included the information that elections are to be held from the 6th to the 8th of November. This is right in the middle of the exam period, a time when students are pulling all-nighters and skipping meals in order to ensure that the past thirteen weeks of their lives have not entirely gone to waste. A major problem in past SRC elections has been dismal voter turnout, a state of affairs which many of the candidates for the State Council positions (elected some weeks ago) actively campaigned to change. In addition to the (frankly outrageous) timing of the actual voting period, we have had the announcement that “all face to face campaigning is strictly prohibited from Monday 22 October, 2012, onwards.” This is, allegedly, an attempt to prevent students from being distracted from their exams.

UTas is actively trying to stop the people who will soon be our elected representatives from engaging with us. How can they hear our concerns if they are not allowed to speak to us? How are we to make an informed choice about the kind of people we want to have advocating for our interests if we are not allowed to hear them speak? And how on earth are we meant to understand their policy platforms when they are restricted to advertising their candidacy with posters no larger than A3 size, posted only on TUU noticeboards, after receiving the TUU stamp of approval?

The fact that SRC elections are a farce is only one element of UTas’ gross contempt towards students. Starting in 2013, the Faculty of Arts is undergoing a major restructure, allegedly designed to increase ‘efficiency’. This includes reducing the previous ten schools of discrete disciplines down to three schools, in which the old disciplines will be subsumed (without entirely losing their identities, of course). While there are obvious problems with amalgamating schools and depriving them of their individual identities, it was not immediately apparent how this would impact upon the teaching of the various disciplines, and I thought it might be justified if it really would reduce bureaucracy and administration costs.

However, it has now emerged that in addition to being stripped of their autonomy and identity, each of the original ten schools will be permitted to run only 14 different units of study in a given year. This is down from as many as 45 units per year in some schools. Education is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement. Students must be allowed to follow their passions, to explore new areas, to diversify their learning, and to specialise into particular fields. This restriction of units on offer deprives students of the choice we all deserve at this level of education, not to mention the fact that it significantly reduces the amount of work available for teaching staff. UTas has said time and again that it is trying to make itself more attractive to students in order to attract more people to study here. If that is the case then why are they actually reducing the number of opportunities that they provide to study and learn?

Currently before the Tasmanian Legislative Council is legislation which would reduce the number of student representatives on the University Council from two to one. The University is literally seeking to reduce the amount of input students are able to have into the way that their education is structured and run. I don’t know as much about it as I would like, but I know that UTas is also treating its academic staff with contempt. If we invest in our teachers and researchers, UTas could be a world-class university. Instead, staff are kept in the dark, with the threat of redundancy looming large, while their schools and faculties are restructured and downsized around them. A University is a place of learning, not a place to make money.

UTas is trying to silence the student voice, alienate us from one another, and reduce the quality of our education. There have been plenty of token gestures which purport to be listening to the student voice. Actions speak louder than internet surveys. Educational institutions should not be run like businesses. Have some respect for the intelligence and integrity of your students and your staff. We will not stand to be treated like this for much longer.

Information about the SRC elections can be accessed here.
Some information about the Arts Faculty restructure can be found here.

Why I Love Sociology

I don’t make new friends very often, which is sad… but that is a subject for another post at another time. So, when I do meet new people, it’s kind of a big deal for me. Recently I met someone new and we got to talking. Among other things, he challenged me a few times to justify what it was that I found so compelling about the discipline of sociology. I declare my love for it often and loudly, but when I tried to explain to him the basis of this love, I seemed to come up short. Perhaps this was because I was inebriated at the time; perhaps it was because I seem to steadily be losing my ability to accurately express myself. Regardless, it has been bothering me for some time now, and I think I’ve come up with an answer that I’m happy with.

An acquaintance of mine once said that she joined the ALP because she simply couldn’t bring herself to believe that ‘poor people are poor because they just haven’t worked hard enough.’ Forget about the political affiliations and the debates we could be having about that statement: the truth is that this is exactly why I like sociology. I refuse to believe that we are a product only of our ‘choices’. We are shaped as human beings by external factors, to a huge extent by the society and the culture in which we live. I love people, I find them fascinating, and I love trying to figure out why they are the way they are.

Each of us is shaped by the choices that we make in life. But the choices that we are given – the opportunities that we have access to – are shaped by much larger forces. I was born into a middle-class family with loving, supportive parents; I have had numerous and wonderful opportunities provided to me, not least access to a very high standard of education.

The level playing field is a myth: even before we are born, we have differing chances in life. The location of our birth and the socio-economic status of our parents are some of the most determinative factors in our lives. Children who fall behind in health status or educational development in the first six years of their lives are unlikely to ever catch up. Having parents who work long hours or are otherwise unable to help with learning, having parents who are drug addicts, having parents who are unable to afford adequate healthcare, having parents who can only afford to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is never the fault of the child. But it will significantly affect the opportunities that are available to them throughout their life, and it will affect the choices that they make.

I could probably use sociology to explain why it is that I wear the clothes that I wear, or read the books I read, or like the TV shows that I like, but I won’t. Suffice to say here that people are not simply a product of their personal choices. Society may be an abstract concept, but it is an important one. By understanding the ways that society affects individuals, we can start to change the structural barriers that exist to prevent everyone having the same opportunities to live their lives that I and my friends have had. Knowing what we’re up against in terms of disadvantage and discrimination is the first step to overcoming it.

Fear and Gender

One of the strangest things that has ever happened to me occurred a few days ago. Once or twice a week I go for a jog through the suburbs near my house. Occasionally people stare at me from their cars for a little longer than is appropriate, but I have never felt unsafe. On Wednesday, as I was jogging along the road – with my headphones in, I might add -, a man stopped his car, got out, gestured towards me and, when I reacted, began speaking to me. I don’t remember ever seeing this man before in my life, but his first words to me were “you work at [my workplace]!” I affirmed that yes, that was true. He then began a long-winded story in which he alleged that someone I had been in a car with the week before had said something nasty about him, which he knew because he had the ability to lip-read.

Without stopping to allow me to confirm or deny this observation he had apparently made, he went on to tell me about his rare and confusing neurological condition and the effects it has had on his life. He continued to assert that he wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t trying to be weird, that he’s actually a pretty intelligent guy, that he’s not paranoid, that he doesn’t take things personally any more… All while he appeared to be trying to politely berate me about the fact that I shouldn’t stand for it when other people say unkind things about him.

All I could think about while he was speaking to me was ‘who will hear me if I scream? If I go missing how long will it take someone to notice? Can I run faster than this guy? Could I hurt him badly enough that I would be able to get away if he tried something?’

I don’t think that he stopped me on the street because I’m a young woman. He certainly didn’t make any kind of sexual remarks or advances. But my mental reaction to the situation was absolutely gendered.

This is what happens when, instead of teaching boys and men not to sexually victimise others, we teach women a culture of ‘risk management’. Don’t go out alone at night, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t drink alcohol or take drugs: basically, live your life in fear (or not at all). This doesn’t just disadvantage women, it disadvantages men. How many men are there in the world that have been looked at with suspicion, brushed off, avoided or been otherwise adversely reacted to by women – even when their intentions were completely non-sexual – because of the way we talk about things like sexual assault? Every man becomes a potential threat if you keep telling women that they might become a victim at any stage.

I wish I hadn’t felt threatened by this man, but I did. It was clear to me that he didn’t have the best social skills, and it’s certainly unfortunate that any person thinks that they can just stop a stranger on the street and talk at them for fifteen minutes. That’s just bad manners. But the thing I hate the most is that I’ve grown up in a culture of fear that makes me wary of people who are otherwise perfectly nice, just because they’re one gender and I’m another.

Here’s something for today.

Ms Peacock Escapes

As I mentioned in a previous post I recently attended a series of lectures at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, it was a fantastic experience all round and I enjoyed so much of it, my mind buzzing with so many thoughts and ideas and questions I figured I should organize them before spitting it all out onto the internet. But the thoughts provoked by this particular panel have taken on a life of their own and somehow fed into such a range of other coincidental happenings in the week since I’m just going to make a start of untangling a few of the issues and come back to this later when time (hopefully) adds a little more clarity.

The panel’s blurb asked, rather aggressively in my opinion, “Is it any wonder that women hate each other?” We’ve all been bitten by harsh criticism or cruel jibes about our size, shape…

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  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

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