Dumbing Down The Future

What Good Is Tertiary Education If You Can’t Afford It?

After days of commentary regarding the Commission of Audit’s report, I’m a little stuck on the notion of education being possibly irrelevant in this country’s future. When you consider that this country used to have free education, it’s pretty alarming to see that the thinking behind the conservative, economic ‘dry’ people is to jack up the price of Tertiary education and saddle more people with HELP debt. The kinds of fees have gone up considerably since the days of HECS.

Just as an aside, I had an early HECS debt from my time at AFTRS worth $6,600 when I left. I had no obligation to pay any of it back until my annual income hit $30k. It was indexed to CPI, which was measured the old way and by the time i was making $30k, it had ballooned out to $12,700, which is roughly double. It took me about 5years to pay it off, but when you look at the total time it took from when I graduated, it took a decade.

The worst thing about paying it off was that it was money that got taken out after tax, but before you made any financial decisions. If you were earning just over 30k, the take home pay would be substantially less as a result. It became a sort of disincentive to earn the $30k, just to keep your finances going. It seemed unfair that the tax man got 2 bites of the tax out of you. The only reason you get an education is so you can get work, then it seems only fair that they take the HECS out first as if it were a business expense, and then figure out the income tax. I had this argument with the ATO a number of times to no avail, but at least I got it off my chest. It was a right pain in the rear and all it did was just start off at a measly $6,600.

Christopher Pyne – the minister for Poodles and limp Noodles – was on Q&A tonight making the claim that the average HELP debt of university graduates was in the order of $16k, so it’s not a big deal for graduates to pay back. His argument was that 60% ever get Tertiary but they pay for universities through their taxes so university students ought to be more grateful for the very low loan they are getting

When I look at some of the sums of debt people are being hit with for HELP, I am left staggered. A lot of specialist arts courses like animation or design are running at about $40-50k. You wouldn’t want to do a course like I did at AFTRS for $50,000 (not that it exists any more). Given the figure there, I would think it would take a good lifetime to pay off a specialist arts education. When you take into account how terrible your employment prospects would be, you’d have to wonder just what in the name of all that’s good you are doing, lumbering yourself with the pricetag of a family sedan before you even enter the rat race.

Then there are careers in things like social work where you would be hard-pressed to earn the $50k salary before you start paying off – but based on my experience it would mean that the social worker would only start paying it back when their pay reaches $50k through inflationary adjustments and bracket creep; and by then their HELP debt has ballooned out to several times the original sum. If vocational courses present such problems, then you sure as hell would be wary of doing a general arts degree.

The point of all this is to say what we’ve got going is financially disincentivising education. And the more we try and slug money out of students, we’re going to skewer higher education towards the wealthy. Contrary to Christopher Pyne’s rant about competition being good for the education sector, the competition would be for students willing to take on the debt – and if this population is diminishing in numbers through disincentivisation, then we can expect the “second tier teaching colleges” to hit a financial wall. In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening to many US teaching colleges.

Christopher Pyne’s argument that students can pay more is also misleading. By that argument, the rich can afford to pay more because they have the most capacity to make money through ownership of capital. But you sure don’t hear that coming out of Pyne’s mouth or the IPA spokespeople. What’s really clear is that the conservatives of this country strongly desire a future where Australia is less educated, with fewer opportunities for people as being the ideal. To that end, they’ll make education more expensive and less rewarding, except for those who come from wealthy families. While it is no surprise, it does seem to be one of the many things that are going to entrench inequality.



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