‘We think that it's overly punitive’: students respond to the changes with HECS

Emma Parkinson, student at Melbourne University. Source: Supplied

Proposed changes to Commonwealth support where students would lose HECS support if they fail more than half of their subjects has led students to worry about whether they will continue studying. Emma Parkinson is one of those students, she says she has already considered dropping out.

A new bill proposed by the federal government's Education Minister Dan Tehan to cut HECS debt has left some students afraid and worried about their futures.

The mooted changes will see students who have failed more than 50 per cent of their units over at least one year of full-time study lose access to Commonwealth support loans like HECS and FEE-HELP.

There are however exemptions for students who are dealing with special circumstances, with the minister referencing illness and bereavement as examples.

According to the department, those circumstances include a situation beyond a person’s control and doesn’t arise until or after the census date for the unit of study, as well as situations that would make it “impracticable for the person to complete the requirements” of their unit while they were studying. 

"These measures will ensure students can’t take on a study load they won’t complete, leaving them without a qualification but a large debt," Mr Tehan said in a statement on Thursday.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan.

Universities will be tasked to use “common sense” when deciding on measures regarding low completion rates of courses.  

Tehan said the department has found students with high levels of HECS debt have “continuously enrolled at multiple providers at the same time”, which has seen debts from $220,000 up to $660,000. 

Universities Australia, the peak body for tertiary institutions, is currently looking at the draft legislation and seeking clarifications of the consequences of some of the measures. 

“It is in everyone’s interest that students do well and when they don’t that a wide range of assistance is available,” Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia chief executive, told The Feed

Catriona Jackson
Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia chief executive.

Jackson says universities already have measures in place to ensure students continue to progress with satisfactory academic results in their chosen course.

"Sometimes students will take on some extra preparatory study and/or change to an entirely different area of study. It is important that these commonsense choices are supported by Commonwealth rules," Jackson said.

"We continue to discuss the detail with the government, with fairness the primary consideration."

'We think that it's overly punitive of students'

Molly Willmott, the president of the National Union of Students says the decision by the federal government has left them "incredibly disappointed".

"We think that it's overly punitive of students," Willmott told The Feed.

Molly Willmott
Molly Willmott, President of the National Union of Students.

Willmott believes the proposed bill will place a huge amount of pressure on students, particularly those adjusting to adult life after high school.

"This change is a way to incentivise students' success, but we see it as a way to incentivise success through fear," she said.

'If I lost access to HECS, there's no way I would have been able to continue'

Melanie Brown studied at the University of Canberra in 1996, she failed seven out of her eight subjects in her first year at university.

"So I would definitely fall into that bucket of having failed my first year at university," Brown told The Feed.

Brown was 22-years-old when she started her degree in Information and Library studies, she was living in a sharehouse and struggling to pay bills while juggling university and working several part-time jobs.

Despite failing all but one of her subjects in her first year at university, Brown went on to work as a systems librarian for over 20 years. Brown thinks it would have been a different story if she began studying now.

"If I lost access to HECS, there's no way I would have been able to continue," she said.

"Most likely I would have ended up continuing to work in retail for the rest of time. And probably earning a lot less than what I do now and paying a lot less in taxes," Brown said.

Brown doesn't believe she would be entitled to the special consideration measures outlined by the government.

"It would depend on how sympathetic the person assessing my situation was to the fact that I was a young person living in group housing and supporting myself," she said.

"I think a lot of people would turn around and go, 'No, that's just life,live with it'."

In spite of having issues within her first year of study, Brown went on to get a job in her industry before even finishing the final year of her course.

What do current students think of the change?

Emma Parkinson, 24, studies a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, she is the first person in her family to complete secondary school -- let alone go to university. Growing up in a regional area in Hobart, the transition to studying at one of the biggest universities in the country was difficult.

"I've been talking to some friends this morning and we're all sort of contemplating the real possibility that we might have to drop out," Emma told The Feed.

Emma Parkinson
Emma Parkinson, student at Melbourne University.

Emma has struggled with her mental health over the last few years of her degree, she's recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and says it's affected her grades significantly.

She's applied for special consideration in the past but it's not such an easy process. From her experience, she says after applying for special consideration once, it's "really hard to reapply" a second time.

"People tend to sort of assume that the problems over," she said.

The process made Emma feel like her health condition was "repeatedly questioned and attacked". And after going through it for two semesters, she was done with it.

"I decided that process was too rough and that I'd rather just fail," she said.

Education minister Dan Tehan has indicated exemptions could be applied. "If a student can demonstrate circumstances have adversely affected their academic performance – for example, illness or bereavement – their education provider can allow for consideration of these impacts," Tehan said on Thursday.

Emma has also criticised education minister Tehan's comments around large debt university students have amassed. She has wanted to reduce her subject load but to continue to access her student allowance she must study at least three subjects per semester.

"So we choose which one to fail so that we can keep getting access to Centrelink so that we can live and afford to eat," she said.

With the proposed changes Emma is anxious about whether her past record may affect her going forward. She's tittering on the brink of the over 50 per cent threshold -- the ambiguity frightens her.

"You're trying to read your course readings, but in the back of your mind, you're wondering whether you're going to be able to afford to stay there," she said.