The Government is Coming After Your Degree… Again

By Ben Robinson

Another year, another attempt to slash university funding. In the Federal budget announced by the Coalition in May 2017, Treasurer Scott Morrison announced a massive shake-up of the education system – increasing fees by 7.5%, cuts to Commonwealth university funding, and making students pay back their loans sooner. However, these proposals were rejected by the Senate in October, forcing the government to rethink their strategy. Unfortunately for students, they’ve found a new one.

 

Announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Overlook in December 2017, the government’s new plan involves freezing funding for the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, limiting the number of places available at universities, introducing a lifetime limit for loans, and reintroducing the idea of making students pay back their HECS loans sooner. These ideas are all part of an attempt to save the government $2.1 billion.

 

Commonwealth Grant Schemes are currently available to all Australians enrolling in university – if you want a Commonwealth supported place at university, you are granted a CGS to delay paying for your degree. Since 2012 the CGS has had no limit, which has entitled Australians of all backgrounds the opportunity to attend university. The government’s plan to freeze funding for the CGS will effectively implement a cap on the limit of students going to university, which is a shame because in 2016 there were 615,000 Commonwealth supported places compared to 440,000 in 2008. The no-limit system – also called the demand-driven system – has made higher education available to anyone and everyone. The real devastation is that the freeze does not have to be approved by the Senate. With the wave of their hands, Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull can introduce this freeze and potentially stall growth in tertiary education for years to come.

 

Their other plans, however – a lifetime loan limit and changing repayments – do have to be passed through the Senate. The lifetime limit will impose a maximum of about $104,000 for most students and $150,000 for medical, dentistry, and veterinary courses. So, if you want to return to university later in life to retrain or undertake postgraduate studies, you may have to fork out the fee upfront. And the plan to make students start paying back their fees when they earn $45,000 instead of the current $55,000 could strain the finances of young people who – thanks to rising house prices and the high cost of living – are already finding it hard to make ends meet.

 

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said, “Australian taxpayers gave universities around $16.7 billion in 2016 alone, or around $19,000 per student, which is more than ever before… the Turnbull Government is focused on getting the best return for every taxpayer dollar invested.” But these cuts aren’t merely the government’s attempt to live within their means; this is an attack on universities, and on students. Saving the government $2.1 billion might sound good, but is that a fair price to pay for a less-educated society? If Labor, NXT and the Greens all reject the proposals in the Senate just as they did last year, the government will have nowhere to move. But just be aware – the government is coming after your degree… again.