Outraged students protest against budget impacts

Tens of thousands of university students held protests across Australia last Wednesday as outrage spread at the impact the federal budget would have in sharply increasing the cost of higher education. Dozens of students were arrested in Melbourne, Sydney and other cities when they held street marches, blocked traffic and tried to enter state parliaments.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott was forced to cancel a visit to Deakin University outside Melbourne when he was advised by his security detail that his safety could not be assured, after students warned they would hold a rally at the university.

Officials believed the students would almost certainly try to disrupt the ceremony that Abbott had been invited to attend. He has now become the most unpopular head of government among Australians of all ages in decades.

Students call for action

The National Union of Students, or NUS, had called for a ‘National Day of Action’, saying the government had made it clear that it intended to massively deregulate higher education and “move towards a United States-style system which would inevitably lead to fee hikes”.

“We unequivocally reject this agenda that will see our system turn into a two-tiered, publicly under-funded and even more privatised system of higher education which leaves students worse off,” said NUS national president Deanna Taylor.

“The government's agenda will fundamentally change the higher education system in this country – and not for the better.”

Academics and university leaders were urged by the National Tertiary Education Union, or NTEU, not to “disadvantage students who took part in the protests”.

“The NTEU has encouraged its members not to penalise students who attend these peaceful protests, with at least one university encouraging its staff to do the same,” said NTEU National President Jeannie Rea.

“In addition to undermining Australia’s public higher education sector and threatening the viability of some of our public universities, the changes to university funding and regulation announced as part of last week’s federal budget impose enormous costs on students.”

Imposing higher costs on students

Under the budget changes, universities will be allowed to impose their own fees to whatever level they wish, on top of those set down by the government.

The elite universities are expected to increase their charges by thousands of dollars in a competition to become the most selective by creaming off the top school-leavers.

Accredited private universities and colleges offering degree and diploma courses will, for the first time, also be able to claim federal funding for their courses, opening the higher education market to dozens of newcomers.

Some observers predict that another 100,000 students could enrol and gain access to government subsidised tuition.

For the first time, too, graduates will face a real interest charge on the money they owe on government loans to cover the cost of fees, and this could leave graduates owing as much as A$120,000 (US$112,000).

At present, students repay the loans through a tax surcharge when their income reaches a minimum level, at present more than A$53,000, and the debt only increases in line with cost of living price rises.

Under the conservative government’s new system, the minimum income level will be cut to A$50,000 and a real rate of interest of up to 6% imposed, pushing up the amount that graduates owe for as long as they are not paying off the loan.

“Students will graduate with debts of A$100,000 or more on which they will now have to pay market interest rates,” Rea said. “Students and their families should not have to consider taking out a second mortgage to pay for a first degree.”

Impact on disadvantaged students

Professor Bruce Chapman, the academic responsible for devising the income-contingent loan scheme called HECS – the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – was not alone when he spoke out saying the likelihood of vastly increased fees and rising debt would impact unfairly on the most disadvantaged students.

''Fees will go up and they will go up quite significantly,'' said Chapman, a leading economist and director of policy impact at the Australian National University.

''I expect most universities will increase tuition fees to international student fee levels, which are currently about three times higher. The Group of Eight universities will do that pretty quickly.”

He said it was plausible that the cost of a bachelor of medical science would rise from A$24,000 to A$120,000 – the fee for international students at the University of Sydney. ''The idea fees will go down anywhere [as claimed by federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne] is frankly fantasy land.''

The plan for students to pay interest on loans of up to 6% was unfair and students who dropped out of university and started work in low-paying jobs would be the hardest hit, he said. So would women who delayed paying back their debts when they took time off work after having children.

Unchartered waters

''Past changes to HECS didn't deter students from entering university, but now that there will be a real rate of interest on the debt, we are in uncharted waters.”

NTEU’s Jeannie Rea said that for many poorer families, higher education would become “a poisoned chalice”. With interest fixed at the bond rate, the level of debt could become “frightening” and while a graduate was out of the workforce looking after children, or earning an income below the minimum repayment threshold, the debt burden would mount rapidly.

"Perhaps the meanest and trickiest aspect of the reformed changes include the abolition of Student Start-up Scholarships and Relocation Scholarships [which assist poorer and remote students] and replacing them with so-called Commonwealth Scholarships, which will be funded by one dollar out of every five collected by universities charging extra fees,” Rea said.

"The proposal means that scholarships will be funded from higher fees, which the bulk of students will add to their student debt. In short, the federal government is asking students to put the cost of scholarships for their disadvantaged classmates on their credit cards.”

* Photo credit: SBS News.


Access to quality education that doesn't burden one with enormous debt is essential to a healthy, functioning, and intelligent citizen body (rich or poor).

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page