Dear Sydney University,
While studying in your Faculty of Education from 1996-99 I gained a healthy respect for the mission of education and its power to bring about equality, address disadvantage, grow democracy and create a more cohesive society.
I also learned that this can only happen if we value education for all and invest in its access. That's why I'm dismayed that former Prime Minister John Howard was granted an honorary doctorate.
From 1996-99 John Howard consistently and systematically attacked the Australian Higher Education system. Rarely a month went by where we students didn't stage a strike, protest march or snap action. Funding cuts, deregulation of fees, massive increases in student debt -- it was all on the table. He and his ministers, Amanda Vanstone and David Kemp, were relentless in their determination to decimate the sector.
Over that four-year period $2 billion was cut from university funding, $100,000 degrees were introduced for international students with a similar scheme proposed for domestic students and HECS repayment levels were dramatically increased.
Howard's administration introduced full-fee places for domestic students, allowing you to 'buy' your way in if you didn't meet the entry requirements. Student services were constantly under attack with the threat of Voluntary Student Unionism. And he ignited the 'culture wars' and curtailed academic freedom.
Many of these changes haven't been reversed. In fact the Rudd/Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull governments have all launched their own subsequent attacks on the sector.
John Howard left a legacy to every Prime Minister that Higher Education is fair game. It is expendable in budgets. As a result, universities are constantly on guard, defending their piece of the pie, growing their marketing departments at the expense of research, getting bums on seats because winter may be coming.
Australia prides itself on accessible and high quality education, and the community didn't stand for many of Howard's reforms. Public outrage and a hostile Senate meant that some of his attacks never saw the light of day. But the wins were hard fought. And forever, Howard left a blueprint for LNP Higher Education policy; a sector deregulated, privately subsidised and tiered with some institutions only being available to those who can afford it.
I understand there is a campaign from many academics and alumni opposing the award on other grounds. Their opposition is based on his racist immigration policies, lies over children overboard and war-mongering. These are controversial, but important for the university to note. As a student, I was involved in many actions against those very things.
But regardless of your views on Iraq, refugees and children in detention, there can be no doubt that Howard was an enemy of education and did everything he could to destabilise universities forever. For him to be awarded an honorary doctorate at the very institution he tried to destroy is an abomination. And it's a slap in the face to the students and staff of the time who fought to keep Higher Education alive.
Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in Education and a Sydney University Alumni 1996-99.