Free Higher Education – a pipe dream or a sensible public investment?

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA 27 February 2019 20

Would a free higher education policy be a lifeline for those drowning in student debt?

With the federal election drawing closer, debate has been heating up on a number of important topics. In between expected debate on issues such as climate change, refugee policy and border protection, there have also been others that are more specifically focused on particular demographics. Older voters have been in the spotlight with issues such as franking credits getting attention. This is in contrast to issues that matter to younger voters, who will be a greater force this election, partially due to increased numbers of the electoral roll due to the equal marriage plebiscite.

Education generally rates highly when young people are asked about the issues they care about. Its pivotal to getting a job, and balancing the stresses that come with school and study can be challenging. Despite this, until now there has been little discussion about the different policies being put forward by the parties around higher education and what this might mean for both individuals and our economy – locally and nationally.

Higher education is highly valued in Canberra. In fact, 37 per cent of people aged 15 or over in the ACT holds a bachelor or equivalent degree – much higher than the Australian average. It’s also a major part of our economy. A report recently released by Deloitte Access Economics found that this sector contributes $3.3 billion and 20,000 fulltime jobs to the local economy. We are a university town: with five universities operating campuses here in addition to the CIT, we have a higher proportion of university students than anywhere else in the country. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2013 that around 12 per cent of our population was studying at university, nearly twice the proportion of other states and territories.

So, what are the pitches around supporting higher education, both here in Canberra and across the country? The Liberal Party has announced some increases in grant funding and a new ‘national interest test’ for research grants. They have also announced that former students will start paying back their educations loans sooner – with repayments starting when people start earning around $45,000. The Federal Labor Party has announced a review of the sector to improve access for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students but no firm plans yet on what this might result in. The ALP has announced increased research funding, uncapping places for students and unfreezing government grants. The most substantial plan, however, comes from the Australian Greens who are running on a platform of free higher education for undergraduate degrees and TAFE.

While free higher education sounds radical and expensive, it’s something we have done before. There was a time when university was free, where Government recognised that supporting people through their undergraduate degrees and vocationally-based education could be an investment that transcended individual achievement and benefit the future economy and community. There is no doubt that there is a cost involved, but when considering the payback to the economy, surely its worth having a look at. We are seeing fundamental shifts in the way the economy and jobs are structured. Jobs are changing and many future jobs haven’t even been invented yet. Given this, is it time to follow economies such as Germany, Finland and Norway and publicly fund education beyond primary and secondary school?

What would it mean for students in Canberra? It’s tough to be a student these days, particularly in this town. While we have some of the highest concentration of undergraduate students in the country, this doesn’t translate to cheap student rents or food. Rents are high and the quality of accommodation that is available for many students is pretty poor. The cost of living can be crippling for those trying to survive on youth allowance payment. There is a pretty common perspective that once people get their degree or TAFE qualification, they will be earning good money and be part of the stable and well-paid workforce. The increasing reality for many students is that the completion of study does not translate to a stable job. Increasing people are finishing their education with study debts that will take years to pay off. In fact, the average student debt that students leave university with is now around $38,000. Combine this with the huge costs associated with homeownership, this current group of young people is looking at a lifetime of debt. All occurring in an economy that is increasingly unstable and rapidly shifting.

I think it’s worth considering more public investment in higher education, and free tertiary education should be supported. What do you think?

Rebecca Vassarotti is an active member of the ACT Greens and ran as a candidate in the 2016 Territory election.


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20 Responses to Free Higher Education – a pipe dream or a sensible public investment?
Kylee Taylor Kylee Taylor 5:51 pm 03 Mar 19

I’m all for investing in our population.

Keating Keating 7:44 am 01 Mar 19

Given the current state of the academy, particularly the social sciences, I think free education would be detrimental and destructive.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:16 pm 28 Feb 19

“While free higher education sounds radical and expensive, it’s something we have done before. There was a time when university was free,….”

Happy to be corrected (with sources), but I think you will find that university places were capped in those days, so it was “free” for people who met the entrance score for their desired course(s).

It might be better to target extra funding at areas of identified skill needs/shortages so that Australia would need to have less resort to raiding the skilled workforces of other countries.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:46 am 01 Mar 19

    That indeed was the way it was and that is the way it should return too. There were conditions applying to the funding of commonwealth scholarships then which meant if you didn’t work for the government after graduation or you didn’t graduate you had to repay the costs of the education. This was called “accountability”.

    Tertiary education is now a huge business and many institutions have lowered their entrance standards to get more starters with guaranteed HECS funding. The teaching institutions have little or no accountability and unless the student gets a job paying about $55K pa no money has to be repaid.

    A sign that the current model is a failure is that some universities are now more focused on sponsoring professional sporting teams/individuals partly with taxpayers’ money that should be used exclusively for education.

Peter Bee Peter Bee 6:38 pm 28 Feb 19

Sensible public investment.

Maya123 Maya123 2:01 pm 28 Feb 19

Everyone talks of people going to university. Likely a percentage of those who go would be better off doing a trade or similar. Hardly anyone talks about needing to do a trade in the same way they think that University is a right.

Veronika Sain Veronika Sain 12:32 pm 28 Feb 19

Because of Whitlam’s government introducing free university education, I and many others (without wealthy parents) were for the first time able to afford to go to university. I benefited from getting my first and then second degree and I helped my family. I worked in fields I could only have dreamed of without those degrees.

There’s a positive flow on effect from education to society as a whole.

Education as well as health should be free in a wealthy country like Australia!

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 9:20 am 28 Feb 19

We’ve wasted money on ridiculous initiatives over the years. If we wanted to we could fund University education. We choose not to.

If higher education is limited to people from a higher socio-economic background, then the perspective of those who go on to be community leaders will be limited. We need education to be available to a broad base. That makes for a healthier society.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:42 am 28 Feb 19

Let’s first understand that nothing is “free”.

HECS type funding should be outsourced to the private sector (student loans) and it should be run on a commercial basis as it is done in other countries. This will qualify the lifters and leaners immediately.

At the moment, many students treat the HECS “loans” as a necessary part their lifestyle which lets them get more taxpayer funded assistance and they have no intention of repaying the money. This makes it “free” for them already.

The ATO currently writes off at least $2 billion annually on HECS loans that can’t be recovered and the total debt to the taxpayer is over $50 billion. It’s unsustainable.

    Wing Nut Wing Nut 8:28 pm 28 Feb 19

    If education was free then Government would have a debt problem. That aside, HELP is only a mechanism to find students. If universities had tighter admission criteria that itself would cull uni numbers.

    Jim9 Jim9 8:42 am 01 Mar 19

    Yeh because privatised student loans work SOOOOO well, don’t they….. that is a lazy ‘everyone is a leaner by default’ view pedaled by those who see only profit as the only reason for any endeavour.

    A large majority of people do not go to uni as a ‘lifestyle choice’ just to get ‘more taxpayer funded assistance’……. ridiculous notion that such a proposition is the motivation for more then for a very small minority of people.

    The better approach, rather than to ruin what is one of the better approaches in place across the world by leaving students facing mountains of private debt that ultimately would leave them hamstrung when starting out after university (because you are not suddenly going to remove the requirement that is in place for a large % of jobs now to have a university degree), would be to maintain the HECS system as it is (as I’ve said elsewhere, a different balance between student/government contributions could be had), and set more appropriate entry standards to ensure only the better students go on to Uni. But for that to work, it needs to be combined with proper investment into alternative training approaches such as TAFE and the VET sector.

Cathy Dearnley Cathy Dearnley 8:29 am 28 Feb 19

Radical? My tertiary education was free in the 80s. And my accommodation was subsidised to assist country students who needed to move to the city to study.

But i think more scholarships are a good option. You can direct students to areas of needs. And encourage high performance. (I'll confess to being a pretty average student myself and maybe a carrot of $$ would have lifted my game? )

    Veronika Sain Veronika Sain 12:39 pm 28 Feb 19

    University shouldn’t be for the children of the wealthy with a few poor charity scholarship students thrown in for good PR. It results in the elite having all control and little compassion over the not so fortunate. Unfortunately :/

    Cathy Dearnley Cathy Dearnley 5:52 pm 28 Feb 19

    Don't misunderstand me. ..i don't mean a few poor charity scholarship. I mean an encompassing system of them. Helping to steer kids towards study in areas identified as growth/need.

Kate Smith Kate Smith 7:41 am 28 Feb 19

I would settle for less of a HECS contribution.......

chewy14 chewy14 7:26 am 28 Feb 19

On average, people with university degrees earn a couple of million dollars more in their working lives than non degree holders.

So what the Greens really want to do is raise taxes on everybody so that upper middle class people can be subsidized by poorer workers to earn more money.

Hardly equitable.

“While free higher education sounds radical and expensive, it’s something we have done before. There was a time when university was free,”

Yes and it also came at a time when entry requirements were far more onerous and few people were completing tertiary education.

This area is already heavily subsidized by the government (taxpayers), it’s fair that the major beneficiary of the education, the student, should contribute towards it. Making university “free” would be extraordinarily expensive and would devalue it, making the entire system less efficient.

If students know it’s free, they don’t need to pick their courses with anywhere near the level of thought as now.

Theres two choices here, either make it free but restrict the free education to the very top students, or open it up to more students but have them contribute like now.

    Jim9 Jim9 9:16 am 28 Feb 19

    Agree broadly Chewy about the two options available.

    I think a strong argument either way can be made that the balance between current HECS payments of students and what the Government contributes is not optimal. But I think in broad terms the system strikes a good balance. It allows a large majority of students to overcome the financial barriers that could exist for going on to higher education, while recognising there is both private and public benefits that accrue from higher education.

    Where the real focus needs to be is fixing the VET/TAFE sector. We need to get to a point where a university degree is not a pre-requisite for almost any job, and back to giving people finishing school a wide variety of options for forging a career path. The VET/TAFE sector has been decimated by governments of all persuasions, in particular the TAFE sector.

    chewy14 chewy14 7:20 pm 28 Feb 19

    I definitely agree about the TAFE sector which is part of my opposition to “free” university.

    There are already too many people attending university, that should not be there and would be better served initially by working in trades and/or going to TAFE.

    We shouldn’t encourage more reliance on the fact that you “must” have a degree to work in certain fields, it simply isnt the case.

Margus von Tihemetsa Margus von Tihemetsa 7:25 am 28 Feb 19

In the information age well educated people is the best resource a country can have.

Hans Dimpel Hans Dimpel 7:17 am 28 Feb 19

I think yes. It's the way it's done in many european countries and is not a problem.

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