The government unveiled its plans this week for a series of long-awaited higher education reforms.
It wasn’t the deregulation bloodbath the Abbott government wanted to unleash on our universities in 2014. Instead, a more conservative round of cuts will see fees increase by 7.5 per cent by 2021 and the HELP threshold drop from $52,000 to $42,000.
Still, a cut is a cut. “Any increase in the cost to students is always painful,” says Gwilym Croucher, higher education researcher, analyst and policy adviser at the University of Melbourne.
So how will the proposed reforms affect students?
In the past, increases in fees have had no long-lasting effect on the number of people enrolling in university. In 1989, the Hawke government introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS). Under the Howard government, HECS charges increased by 40 per cent and for the first time, universities were permitted to create full fee-paying places. University enrolments increased regardless.
In fact, we have more people studying at university than ever before. In 2015, there were 1.4 million students enrolled in Australian universities. It follows that there are loads more people with degrees. “In 1970 about three per cent of the adult population had a bachelor degree, we're now getting close to 40 per cent,” says Croucher. “In some places like downtown Melbourne, Sydney and other cities, almost 50 per cent of people have a bachelor degree.”
Croucher says that many are worried that we are reaching the point where students will start to turn away because it is getting too expensive. “At some point students will look at the cost of their degrees and say, ‘no, it's better to go and do something else. Maybe, one less year studying, one more year of work is actually going to be better for my career in the long-run?’”
The people who will be most affected by the changes are those earning under the current threshold, who will suddenly be saddled with a larger debt they need to start paying back earlier. According to analysis by Greg Jericho published in the Guardian, someone earning $52,000 – less than the median wage in Australia - will go from having a $0 liability to owing the government almost $1300.
After paying university costs (HECS) and daycare fees for two children ($600 a week after the rebate), each week she takes home just $300 of her full-time wage. Lowering the threshold “puts on additional strain,” she told me.
This adds to the burden of people who are already stretched financially, a growing number of Australians. The rate of underemployment – where people want to work more – among young people is 18.9 per cent. It also disproportionately affects women, who make up 71.6 per cent of all part-time employees in Australia. It’s these demographics – women and young people – who make up the majority of university students (57.9 per cent and 61.1 per cent respectively).
Increasing fees and lowering the threshold “can have pretty dramatic consequences on those who are working part-time and so therefore earning less money,” says Croucher. “They tend to be parents and carers, so you have to be very worried that this could potentially affect people like single fathers or mothers and low income families.”
I put a callout on Facebook asking people how they felt about the changes. One friend who is midway through a Social Science degree is weighing up whether to finish the course. Another friend graduated in 2014 after retraining as a teacher. After paying university costs (HECS) and daycare fees for two children ($600 a week after the rebate), each week she takes home just $300 of her full-time wage. Lowering the threshold “puts on additional strain,” she told me.
Student life today is very different to what it was like in the 1970s, when many of our country’s politicians and policy makers were at university. Back then, it was free. The Whitlam Labor government abolished university fees in 1974.
As we live longer, universities will play an important role training and retraining people as they make numerous career changes over their lifetimes.
Today, uni is definitely not free. A three-year humanities degree, currently $19,700, will cost $20,400 if the government’s reform package passes. A six-year medical degree, now $68,000, will rise to $71,900.
Compared to the ‘70s, students today do have it tough, says Croucher. “They work a lot more, they have a lot less time to study, they spend a lot of time on campus but they don't spend as much time in classes anymore. They're at campus at different times, we find that these days students treat higher education like another job and they're really looking towards how they're going be employed.”
As we live longer, universities will play an important role training and retraining people as they make numerous career changes over their lifetimes. It’s “going to require some investment to produce the kind of graduates that can have several different careers,” says Croucher. “Now is probably not the time that you want to undermine the integrity of your university system.”