Australian students have the immense privilege of being able to attend a world-class university regardless of their bank balance, or family background.
And that will continue under the government’s recently announced plans to make students foot more of the bill for their degree, and to start paying it back sooner.
The beauty of Australia’s higher education contribution scheme, or ‘HECS’ as it’s widely known, is that students are only expected to repay less than half the full cost of their studies after they land a job that earns them a comfortable living. By the time former students are earning the government’s newly revised threshold of $42,000 a year for compulsory HECS repayments, they will be taking home a healthy $700 a week after tax and super contributions.
That is a far cry from packaged noodles, tinned spaghetti and instant coffee.
And once students do start work, the dividends are enormous. University graduates can expect to earn well over $1 million more throughout their working life than those without a degree. They also enjoy around half the average unemployment rate, as well as having the opportunity to spend valuable years plying their trade in their chosen field.
That kind of pay-off makes the government’s proposed fee increase of no more than $3600 a year look like chump change. Anyone who claims an increase of this order will stop school leavers from pursuing their dream career can join me for a bicycle ride to the moon. Indeed, whatever way you slice it, taking out a HECS loan to attend university stands to be the best investment you’re ever likely to make.
It’s fashionable to romanticise the Whitlam government’s introduction of free tertiary education as a shining example of the truly egalitarian society Australia ought to be.
But where is the fairness in asking the majority of Australians – three quarters of whom don’t have a university qualification – to subsidise the debt of tomorrow’s professional class who are likely to earn more over their lives than they will?
With an eye-watering national debt of $550 billion and an annual deficit of $37 billion, there is no painless or politically simple way of bringing our country’s finances back to a sustainable footing. Faced with the challenges of an ageing population, chronic infrastructure backlog and inexorably rising health costs to name a bare few, hard-headed choices in our national interest are sorely needed.
If we want to take care of those who are sick, without work or who can’t otherwise go it alone, it makes sense to share the burden with those who can. By that standard, paring back the funds used to pave the way for doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers without raising the entry barriers for future students is a perfectly equitable place to start.
None of this is to say there aren’t scores of students buckling under the cost of living independently while studying 40 hours a week. But if we actually want to help students doing it tough, there are far better things we could do than paying off a debt they will only encounter once they’re taking home an easily liveable wage.
But as famously said by Paul Keating, the Treasurer who abolished free university and introduced the HECS system, “a free higher education system is one paid for by the taxes of all, the majority of whom haven’t had the privilege of a university education. Ask yourself if you think that is a fair thing.”
On that score, Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s announced shake up of university funding is exactly the kind of fair and forward-thinking policy the Coalition government should be championing.