Make Education Fair Again

With recent talk on campus focusing on the changes to HECS debt repayment in the recent Budget and with upcoming major student rallies nationwide against these fee changes on the 17th May, it is timely that we have an honest discussion about it and why I, as a student, support these changes.

The Federal Government will lower the threshold for repayments down from an annual income of $56 000 to $42 000 from 2018-19. Around 200 000 more graduates will be repaying their HECS debt earlier. Moreover, university fees are set to increase by around 7.5% by 2021 representing a maximum increase of around $3600 for a four year course.

In the face of student debt owed to the government blowing out from $25.5 billion in 2012 to $50 billion currently there are serious and warranted concerns about the sustainability of the current system. Up to $14 billion of this debt will not be repaid. Yet Senator Birmingham’s description of these reforms as “fundamentally fair” has been challenged by the NUS, the Socialist Alternative as well as regular students, angered by the prospect of greater repayments.

A large part of the campaign against these changes has focused on the concept of fairness. The reforms have been framed as a “savage attack on students”. Affordability and social issues such as housing, health, unemployment, inequality and tax cuts to business have been fused together by critics of these reforms under the fees issue, framing student life as a class struggle of the young against a ruthless government and their corporate friends.

However is this really the case? Does the government really hate students, dooming them to a lifetime of debt? Is the NUS president correct when she says that the government is “taking from the poor to support the rich”? I propose that these reforms have actually increased the levels of fairness across society as a whole, and do not entrench some elitist class but ensure average hardworking taxpayers are treated more equally.

Most domestic university undergraduate students are enrolled in Commonwealth Supported Places. This means that they do not pay the full tuition fees but instead only have to pay a Student Contribution.

Already, students are deriving huge dividends from such a generous system. Currently, students only have to pay for around 42% of their total tuition fees. The government foots the remaining 58%. Essentially, taxpayers are paying for someone else to attend university. These tax payers are strangers who may or may not have gone to university themselves. These taxpayers are mothers, fathers or even other young working people. Farmers, teachers, cleaners and nurses are all chipping in for more than half of a student’s university fees. Is this fair?  Do we not, as equal fellow members of society and as the students benefitting from these degrees, have a responsibility to more equally share the load?

Despite claims that these reforms will increase inequality for students, graduates are actually more likely to enjoy a higher standard of living. They enjoy lower unemployment rates, higher incomes and the ability to enter their chosen field, working in a job that they are well suited for. Moreover, a graduate earning the threshold of $42 000 will only have to pay back 1% of their income. This represents a modest increased repayment rate of around $8 a week. Considering that in 2015 the median bachelor degree graduate’s salary in their first full time job was around $54 000, it is indeed a small price to pay.

As it stands, strangers are arguably over generously subsiding a student’s degree that unlocks for the student a higher income and standard of living, leaving the former with less income.  Is this not itself creating inequality, ‘robbing’ from those who are already working hard and giving to an emerging professional class?

These reforms serve to protect future generations of Australian students. A budget blowout years down the track due to soaring unpaid student debt would mean sudden, drastic cuts. The Grattan Institute’s aptly named “HELP for the future” report about the reforms expresses this sustainability concern. The government has taken an important step to secure the long term viability of this system for future generations of Australians.

The system as a whole has been of great benefit to young Australians, enabling access to quality tertiary education and equipping them for a dynamic global economy. Rates of university enrolment are rising, with more and more Australians gaining much needed skills to drive our future economy. University is not becoming increasingly inaccessible but actually becoming an option for more and more people.

However, as it stands, students are not doing their fair share to pay for their education. The fee reforms are a step in the right direction for a fairer society. These reforms ensure that university remains a clear and rewardable option. Students will still have unmatched access to one of the most generous loan systems in the world but taxpayers, now and into the future, will be treated more fairly.

These upcoming protests express a latent refusal to bear one’s own fair share. We need to stop treating the Australian taxpayer as our personal banks. Payment of tertiary education fees is not a right to be demanded of other members of the public but something we as students should and will be increasingly taking responsibility for.

I applaud the government’s step towards a fairer society.

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