Unfair fee hikes attack students with disadvantage and debt

Students have been hit the hardest during COVID-19 and will now also face a disadvantaged future, says Sarah Cupitt. ...

Students have been hit the hardest during COVID-19 and will now also face a disadvantaged future. Photo by Andre Hunter.

Australia needs to invest in the future of young people. Is it the student’s responsibility to fight, or the Government’s to change their mind?

Education Minister Dan Tehan’s university funding changes will negatively impact young people planning to attend university, with many anticipating disproportionate impacts on women, disabled and Indigenous students. By 2023, the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) package will provide an additional 39,000 places, with price increases in humanities and arts (up 113 per cent), law and commerce (both up 28 per cent) to pay for reductions for in-demand courses such as teaching, nursing, math, science and engineering. The fee restructures ultimately decreases the total Government degree contribution from 58 per cent to 52 per cent, with student contributions rising from 42 per cent to 48 per cent to pay for more places.


How will the fee hikes affect WSU?


In a recent Western Sydney University (WSU) Academic Senate meeting, undergraduate representative Hollie Hammond asked whether the university’s standing as a leader in gender equality will translate to supporting the female students expected to be unfairly disadvantaged by the reform. She described WSU’s response as “vague political language”, with Executives emphasising the legislative nature of the changes, implying WSU must simply adapt. University Executives further emphasised the importance of a counter-narrative to highlight the value of humanities, reminding that the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) repayments were contingent upon income.


Though it was unclear how the university would deliver this counter-narrative, Hollie was unsurprised that WSU would shift focus to emphasise the importance of humanities. She felt universities now had an incentive to attract and retain students in courses with increased fees. University Executives confirmed statistics are indicating humanities enrolments remain stable.


“But what will you do about the fact that we will now have a generation of women being saddled with an astronomically higher HECS debt, which they already take longer to pay off, to say nothing of the wage gap and lower levels of super?” says Hollie.


Being a student mother, Hollie would ideally like to see if the university plans to shuffle their budget around to offer scholarships or subsidies for women in the arts.


“If we’re #1 in gender equality, what are we doing to lead? What are we doing to bring the conversation around to how this will impact women?” she adds.


Is gender equality going backwards?


Since universities will not be explicitly needed to supply places in national priority fields under Tehan’s scheme, it depends on universities deciding to respond to student demand. Some critiques of the reform have legitimised student concerns, including that there might potentially be an incentive for universities to recruit even more students in the humanities.


Male students dominate almost all degrees set to become cheaper, arguably due to institutionalised gender bias. Minister Tehan argues that the proposed changes will encourage gender equality by supporting the study of STEM at the tertiary level for more young women. However, financial incentives are not overly useful in promoting gender equality.


Both the United Nations and the Australian Commission on Human Rights have cautioned that COVID-19’s numerous social and economic impacts are undoing decades of progress towards gender equality. During Research Week, the Science in Australia Gender Equity Group at WSU conducted a discussion on how Australian universities could work in partnership with industry and communities to mitigate the gender effects of COVID-19.


There is a gender wage disparity from the time women graduate from university. Some of the largest graduate pay disparities were identified in science, mathematics and agriculture in 2019, while communication was one of the few places where female undergraduate median salaries were higher than or equal to their male counterparts.


It could be argued that the cut in nursing degree fees is proof of women being accommodated by the Federal Government. Nursing, however, has always been a highly feminised sector, as well as one of the lowest paying and highest risk occupations. Nurses were subject to public-sector wage freezes during the COVID-19 crisis and were exempt from stimulus packages.


Humanities and social sciences consistently attract more students than any other subject in the field – most of whom are women. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reveals that women will graduate with much higher debt from HECS, which will take longer to pay off due to lower lifetime earning rates and extended periods away from the workforce. Over the past ten years, women have always represented the bulk of enrolment in humanities and social science disciplines. They accounted for two-thirds of enroled students in 2018.


What does the Government think?


Vicky-Rae Renier-Clark, SRC Campus Representative for Bankstown, attended the Future of Education Panel with Tanya Plibersek (Shadow Minister for Education and Training), Angelo Gavrielatos MP and Prue Car MP at the Labor National Conference. At this panel, she echoed the questions raised in WSU’s Academic Senate a few days prior, asking how Labor’s stance on gender equality would fit within their response to the JRG package.


Tanya Plibersek mentioned that it is evident that the budget put forward by the Morrison Government was not compiled with women in mind. She also identified that the JRG package would disproportionately impact Indigenous students and students with disability.


Labor identified a 21 per cent increase in domestic student enrolments since COVID-19. However, the Morrison Government was attempting to strip funding from universities and students; with over 21,000 academics recently losing their jobs.


James Newbold, NSW Education Vice-President of the National Union of Students, believes gender equality should be a key demand of students in response to the fee hikes and the struggle for a better education system.


“History shows that Governments are hostile to equality in the education system, and universities are infamously bad at standing up for students, especially those most in need. Students then have no choice but to stand up for what is right and demand fairness in our education system,” said James.


Students have already undergone interrupted learning, isolation, record loss of jobs and will inherit a generation of debt because of COVID-19. While some students graduate into a recession, others now face racking up a massive HECS debt.


Why a psychologist encourages you to go on social media during COVID-19

Connecting with friends online is now more important than ever. ...

While self-isolation is vital for flattening the COVID-19 curve, the lack of social interactions can have devastating consequences on our wellbeing and mental health.


Social media connections. Photo: Shayma Abdellatif

The uncertainty that clouds our lives is causing stress and anxiety for almost everyone, however, Dr Harley Watson says that social media offers an antidote to relief some of this anxiety, and ensure our mental wellbeing is maintained.

“The biggest thing is to remember that you’re not alone in this. Everyone else is experiencing this too,” she says.

Dr Harley Watson is a clinical psychologist and the CEO of Open Parachute, an online school health program that raises awareness about mental health among teenagers and aims to reduce bullying in school.

Clinical psychologist and CEO of Open Parachute, Dr Harley Watson











Social media is the reality of this generation, and instead of denying that fact, Dr Watson said that we need to find ways to take advantage of what this reality offers. The key to interacting online is whether the experience is having a positive or a negative outcome on one’s wellbeing. Having a network of support, especially for young people, where they can have intimate conversations about their emotions and struggles, is now more important than ever.

“Reaching out online and staying connected to their friends and using social media to connect with them is really important for their mental health right now,” says Dr Watson.

Being online often may also mean being exposed to content that lowers self-esteem and confidence, which only adds to the problem. In order to avoid this, Dr Watson advises social media users to interact with friends in small private networks instead of sharing personal feelings and content publicly.

“When we share something with the whole world, we lose that personal feedback and personal interaction, and we open ourselves to any type of response including online bullying,” she says.


When asked about online challenges that appeared in the past months, Dr Watson says that if participating in those public challenges helps young people cope with this crisis, then that’s fine. Creating a sense community support and knowing that everyone is going through similar struggles is equally important. However, she says that every person needs to constantly reflect on any online interaction, and use their judgment to determine whether that’s beneficial or counter-productive.

     “Ultimately, we want the online world to connect us not separate us,” she says.

In a Snapchat survey, the majority of Snapchatters, 66 percent, said that communicating with friends and family online have helped them cope with the situation, and allowed them to still enjoy some quality time despite the COVID-19 restrictions. More than 71 percent said they have become more aware about how to stay safe, through the platform, since the beginning of the crisis.

Many social media platforms are playing an increasing role in proving information about ways to stay safe during COVID-19. In a press release, General Manager for Snap Inc. ANZ, Kathryn Carter, said that Snapchat is collaborating with local and international health experts to increase awareness about health among its users.

“Content on our Discover platform is curated and moderated, and we work closely with only a select set of partners, including some of the most trusted news organisations around the world, to develop fact-based content for our community,” says Ms Carter.

In partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO), Snapchat launched a series of filters and Bitmojis with information about hygiene and self-isolation, as well as links to local mental health support services.


If you need mental health support services, don’t hesitate to contact any of the following:


Nasser Sultan: Reality behind reality TV

Experiencing his fair share of Australian reality TV, Nasser Sultan gives us a behind-the-scenes look....
While you (arguably) have real-life people and situations, we’ve come to know that reality TV can be far from reality. From your dramatic one-liners, to your season villains and favourites that make the best memes – there is a natural scepticism for what is real and what is not.

Egypt-born Nasser Sultan, an Australian reality TV veteran, shares with us some of the realities behind reality TV. With Married at First Sight catapulting him to the spotlight, Nasser has also expanded on his reality TV experiences including Pawn Starts Australia, Trial By Kyle, and most recently, First Dates.

Nasser Sultan. Credit: Christina Ueltzen

“I’ve been on three shows, and every production and network [in Australia] are different” Nasser says. Although he reveals that his experiences on Blind Dates was genuine and an example of “real reality”, others were … not-so-pleasant.

Nasser has been openly critical about Married at First Sight (MAFS) based on his previous experience in Season 3 that aired in 2018. It’s no question that MAFS is the most explosive and talked-about shows in Australian reality TV, with the season showcasing cheating scandals and affairs, bombshells and interesting characters.

Source: Married at First Sight

Nasser admits that the “12 hours of filming a day” was exhausting and took a toll on his relationship with his “wife” on the show, Gabrielle Barlett.

“You don’t have time to get to know the other person on a genuine level,” he says. “By the time you’ve finished, you’re so tired, you don’t care anymore.”

Nasser Sultan, and his wife on the show, Gabrielle Barlett

In a Now to Love article, past contestants of MAFS reveal that producers play a big part in what is said — whether the show is scripted or not. Often, the participants are made to repeat certain lines, until they are happy with how it sounds.

“You’re mic’d up at all times, and if they want something, they pull you aside and question you, asking you to elaborate on that subject,” Nasser says, with producers asking you to present it in a certain way.

While Nasser trusts that audiences really want to see someone “genuine” or a person they can relate to, producers tend to selectively pick people who they feel will entertain the masses.

“They think everyone wants to see tits, ass and abs,” Nasser adds. “TV needs a spark – there’s the same people, same jokes and same faces.”

“If you’re too straight or too boring, they don’t want you,” he says.

In an open letter to future contestants of MAFS on Now to Love, Nasser adds how the producers have a final say in how you come across and there’s “nothing you can do about it.” With some of the unfavourable edits from producers, a contestant can easily be illustrated as the season’s villain, often leaving them vulnerable to online trolls.

Nasser Sultan on Married at First Sight

Being of Egyptian background, Nasser admits that the racial backlash was “beyond belief.” Although he experienced no more than condescending behaviour by the other contestants of the show, social media backlash post-episodes were the real villain. Minus the race-based hate, Nasser says that he would find notes left on his car and scooter, getting followed and trips to the police.

“Things like, [referring to the social media comments] you bloody wog, treating women badly, bit of the terrorism and the war that’s happening in Syria … blah blah blah.”

Being thrown into the lion’s den for online criticism, this often takes a toll on the contestants’ mental health. While Nasser acknowledges that MAFS provides facilities for counselling, he believes they can only do so much.

“Don’t go on there if you think you can’t handle it, or you have kids … it’s harder than it looks,” he says, emphasising that contestants are particularly affected based on how people interpret your personality, or being edited in a certain way.

Nonetheless, Nasser says that the backlash didn’t affect him “at all,” and he acknowledges he has the thick skin for it. He admits that he loves the media and being out the front and outspoken. “I feel like I’m almost made for it,” he confesses.

“The only thing it has affected is getting into relationships,” he says, due to the façade that the media can create on reality TV personalities that don’t necessarily illustrate them in the best light. “If you’re going to date someone, they have to understand how the whole thing works, and feel secure about it.”

Now, Nasser states that reality TV is becoming predictable, and most people are becoming accustomed to the “blueprint of reality TV.”
“It’s not reality anymore … it’s not genuine.”

Despite this, he believes that going into reality TV was the best thing that happened to him and has learned a lot from his experiences. “At least, I can proudly say that I’ve made a dent in the media.”