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Speech: Can politicians look students in the eye?

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 19 Sep 2018

I've stood as an engineer and a sustainability academic at the front of lecture theatres more often than I've stood up to speak in parliaments. When you're teaching you spend an awful lot of time looking your students in the eye, as you might imagine. Now that I'm spending less time in the classroom and more time in parliament, I often wonder whether many members in this place wouldn't benefit from having to look some students in the eye every so often. I wonder about this because this parliament's track record of selling out students and the education system seems to suggest that some parliamentarians have little understanding of learning and teaching as more than just a tricky funding issue. They would benefit, I suggest, from more opportunities to speak with students of all ages, to appreciate the breadth of their interests and concerns, to understand their passions and hopes for the future. Then, maybe, we could return to a debate about education centred on the value of learning.

I've taught and run university courses, carried a National Tertiary Education Union card for many years and watched with immense pride as hundreds of my students graduated to pursue their dreams. I don't mention this to talk up my academic credentials—though I'm happy to talk ecological sustainability, engineering and anaerobic wastewater treatment anytime, anywhere. I mention my experience because it means I've spent countless hours with students and as a student studying, teaching, marking, mentoring, listening and learning. I can bear firsthand witness to the difference it makes when teachers and staff have the opportunity to get to know and understand their students. This is an opportunity they find harder and harder to get when funding cuts have been foisted upon them by successive Labor and coalition governments, and these cuts have given university managements an excuse to put pressure on staff to do more with fewer resources.

The result of each new round of cuts, capped off last year by the coalition government's craven decision to take $2.1 billion from the sector over 2018 and 2019 through funding freezes is predictable: larger class sizes, fewer resources, less individual attention to learning needs and, for staff, more and more casual and contract work and less and less job security. Too often the hardest hit are academics at the start of their careers whose professional lives become overwhelmed by the precarious nature of casual work, not knowing each semester whether they will have a job for the next. This is no way to conduct research, and the constant worrying about holding onto your job is certainly no way to teach. It is simply not good enough for governments to distance themselves from university decisions that are not good for staff or students. They have to take responsibility for the link between senseless funding cuts and the pressures it creates for staff and students alike. We must recognise that, in our universities, staff working conditions are student learning outcomes conditions. We cannot have a flourishing public higher education system without secure jobs within it.

During my first speech, less than a month ago, I spoke of the wicked problems we face as a society—problems like climate change, inequality, health services, infrastructure planning and school funding. We will not begin to address these wicked problems unless our best minds are given the time, space, resources and support to tackle them. Universities and our education system as a whole are vital to meeting these challenges now and in the years to come.

The Greens recognise and celebrate this important role unis play. We, like the rest of Australia, see that politicians from both major parties are too often willing to exploit the public relations value of professing an interest in Australian education while using the education system as a political football. The Greens refuse to look at education as anything but a lifelong learning process that starts from a child's very first word and lasts the duration of adult life. This includes early childhood education, schools, TAFE and university. We refuse to think of education as curriculum box-ticking, an exercise in meeting metrics or an opportunity to enable the business models of private sector providers to make profit. Education is not a commodity, students are not customers and teachers are not mere service providers. We see collective action as the only way university staff can get decent working conditions. We will champion well-funded and accessible public education for everyone at all stages of their life. We will remain a party able to look students and teachers in the eye.

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