Financial costs deter thousands of masters students

More than 130,000 Australians are undertaking one or other of nearly 1,200 masters degrees by coursework offered by the nation’s universities. But while a masters degree has become the required qualification to gain entry to an increasing number of occupations, the cost deters many students.

Meantime, some 800,000 domestic students enrolled in first-degree courses are able to take out government loans that cover their tuition costs.They start repaying the loans via the tax system when they are working and earning more than AU$54,000 (US$40,000) a year.

Most masters students work part-time or rely on their parents to pay the tuition fees and living expenses. Many find the effort of combining work and study too arduous and drop out. But some, including Queensland student Mick Fox, persevere.

Fox is studying a double masters degree in international relations and international business at Griffith University in Brisbane.

He says he returned to university because his single undergraduate degree in international relations meant he did not have the qualifications to work in or ‘even remotely close’ to that field.

In addition, because of the increasing number of Australians with double degrees, or with honours and postgraduate studies, he doubted he could compete in the current job market with just a single degree.

“But I also wanted to expand my knowledge beyond one discipline and hone my skills to be more employable in more areas, such as the private and public sector or in academia,” Fox says.

So he now spends much of his time trying to balance part-time work, study and ‘jobseeker activities’.

When he asked for help from the government’s employment agency, he was told he should give up his studies, get a full-time job and go back to university when he had earned enough to survive as a student.

“I am the first person in my family to undertake university study and, coming from a low-income background, it seems that the system is not there to support you. Instead, they want to place you in any form of employment even if it’s unsuitable while leaving higher education to those who can afford it.”

Fox is a vice-president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), which is campaigning for greater support for postgraduates who are not eligible for scholarships or government allowances.

CAPA President Natasha Abrahams says there is no comprehensive list of masters courses where students are eligible or ineligible to apply for a government allowance.

So no-one knows which ones are the eligible courses, their proportion of the total, or the estimated cost of extending the allowance scheme to include all masters students.

According to government guidelines, to qualify for an allowance, the qualification a masters student is aiming for must be essential for employment in a profession where accreditation is required, either for admission to or required by a recognised professional body or for registration with a state or territory governing authority.

Courses that do not meet at least one of the criteria cannot be approved for student allowance payments.

One survey that CAPA conducted found a remarkable variation among Australia’s universities in the proportion of masters courses where students could obtain a government allowance.

At the Australian Catholic University, which has a focus on teacher education, 41% of masters courses are eligible for study allowances, whereas only 9% are eligible at the Australian National University and 13% at Central Queensland University.

“If the federal government genuinely wanted to enable low-income students to complete and succeed in their studies, they would provide them with the money to do so,” Abrahams says.

“Instead, in the most recent federal budget, the government decided to spend AU$144 billion (US$106 billion) buying votes with massive tax cuts.”

Loan system

The government, however, argues that since Australia’s higher education contribution scheme – the HECS programme – was introduced in 1989, the nation’s past and present university students have amassed a total debt of AU$50 billion (US$37 billion).

Graduates start repaying what they owe through tax deductions when they are earning annual salaries of AU$54,000 or more a year. But, on current estimates, one in four of these borrowers will never repay what they owe.

From 1 January next year, however, the government will introduce a combined cap on the amount of tertiary education assistance a student can access to cover their tuition fees.

Student loans will be limited to AU$150,000 for those undertaking medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses, and AU$104,440 for all others.

“These reforms are necessary to ensure Australia’s generous income-contingent loan system remains sustainable so future generations of Australians, regardless of their background or their financial means, can continue to access higher education without upfront fees,” he said.

“Some students have borrowed excessively against the student loan schemes and amassed more debt than can be repaid during their working life.”