Education policy

Re-invigorating our universities

The Commonwealth aims to deliver a Universities Accord by the end of this year, “to drive lasting reform in Australia’s higher education system”. It has established a panel, headed by former New South Wales Chief Scientist Mary O'Kane, which will “make recommendations for government, the sector and other relevant stakeholders to deliver a higher education system that meets the current and future needs of the nation, and targets to achieve this.”

Among the seven areas the panel is to review are funding, access, the connection between vocational education and university education, and ways to deliver new knowledge, innovation and capability.

The panel has released a discussion paper, structured around its seven terms of reference, and is inviting responses to 49 questions. For example: #28 “What is needed to increase the number of people from under-represented groups applying to and prepared for higher education, both from school and from other pathways?”, and #48 “What principles should underpin the setting of student contributions and Higher Education Loan Program arrangements?”. To help people make a considered response the paper consolidates a large amount of data on our universities and their performance.

Responses are due by April 11.

Melinda Hildebrant and Peter Hurley, of Victoria University, have a Conversation contribution on the proposed accord: The Universities Accord will plan for the next 30 years: what big issues must it address?. They draw particular attention to deficiencies in the Morrison government’s “Job-ready Graduates Package”, which may have succeeded in the government’s aim to devalue scholarship, liberalism and the humanities, but which did not succeed in its “jobs” objective. They also address the problems faced by universities arising from their heavy dependence on foreign students.

Student debt


How long will they have to go on paying? (ANU campus)

In 1974 the Whitlam government abolished university tuition fees. That is not to suggest that until then all students paid university fees. The Menzies government had established a system of Commonwealth scholarships, which had reasonably easy eligibility hurdles, and many government enterprises including teaching and telecommunications were offering generous cadetships. The contract was that graduates would repay that debt to the community through progressive taxation and through public service. Teachers, for example, understood that they were obliged to spend their first few years in country towns.

It is notable that many politicians and senior public servants who had benefited from these taxpayer-funded schemes went on in their political and professional lives to re-cast tertiary education as a market transaction, to be funded by student debt.  

The Fraser government tried to re-introduce fees, but faced with strong protests, re-introduced fees only for international students.

It was the Hawke-Keating government that re-introduced fees for undergraduate courses, starting with a $250 “administration fee” (equivalent to about $800 now), and introducing HECS in 1989, starting at $1 800 (equivalent to $4 800 now). Successive governments, particularly Coalition governments harbouring a hatred of liberal learning and scholarship, loaded more and more burdens on students to pay for tertiary education. The Morrison government was particularly savage: it twice reduced the HELP (Higher Education Loan Program) repayment threshold: it is now $48 361, just 14 percent above the minimum wage; it increased fees for humanities courses; and it excluded universities from “Jobkeeper” payments. Yahoo has a chronology of these fiscal assaults on learning, noting that the ATO has identified one person with a $737 000 student debt. By the end of 2021-22, 3 million Australians owed $74 billion in HELP debt.

That outstanding debt, and an additional $42 billion already paid off, is part of the price we pay for governments’ fiscal obsession with government debt. If, like the Nordic countries, Germany and France, we did not impose student fees, that debt would show on the government balance sheet, or would have been paid off through taxes. But our governments, mainly but not only Coalition governments, have been shifting debt off the government’s books and on to individuals, a policy based on the cosmetics of fiscal management but with no overall national benefit. Housing debt and student debt are the biggest categories. Australia is among a small group of OECD countries imposing significant fees on tertiary students.[1]

Women have the highest burden of student debt

Writing in The ConversationHECS-HELP loans have become unfair for women but there is a way to fix this – Mark Warburton of the University of Melbourne shows how the burden of repayment of student loans has fallen heavily on women. When HECS was introduced in 1989, fewer young people were attending university and graduates were still enjoying substantial income premiums over non-graduates. But over time many occupations traditionally held by women have moved to require university degrees and diplomas. That is particularly the case in nursing. These professions certainly don’t enjoy any income premium, as Warburton points out. Similarly with teaching, which has for a long time required university qualifications, but for which there is now little support from education departments. In a large range of caring professions women are now bearing more student debt than men, and have less capacity to pay. This situation has been aggravated by the lowering of repayment thresholds.

Rather than suggesting restoration of free tertiary education, Warburton suggests some modification of repayment systems, and removal of what has become a poverty trap, or a de facto high marginal rate of taxation on graduates repaying student debt, as repayments start to bite and as tax benefits are withdrawn.

Warburton makes the valid point that at present the government faces a tight fiscal situation. But the case for restoration of free tertiary education should not be dismissed on grounds of short-term practicalities. There is a case for restoration of the contract that regarded a university education as something beyond a private good transacted in a market, recognizing its public-good aspect. A private-good perspective is concerned mainly with the technical aspects of university education with immediate and easily-traceable economic benefits. The public-good perspective is about society’s long-term resilience, adaptability, and security.

1. For comparative data see OECD Education at a Glance, Figure C51 (p 295).

How are our schools performing?

Our government schools are in crisis and in urgent need of reform. We are falling behind other countries and our own standards of recent years. Our school education system is on the verge of collapse.

We know this because the Murdoch media, reinforced with some out-of-context quotes from Education Minister Jason Clare, tells us how dire the situation has become.

Martyn Goddard, on his Policy Post, takes a more reasoned look at our schools, government and private, in a data-rich article: Are our schools really that bad? No, actually.

There are indeed problems in our school education, and there is a case for reform “as there is for other elements of public policy”. But we should tread with caution and recognize what is working well. He warns that “the issue is whether hyperventilated crisis-mongering is the wisest way to go about it. And there are political risks. The effects of any serious reform will take some years even to become visible.”

He acknowledges problems such as our falling math performance as measured by our PISA scores, but these are signs of a need to improve rather than to pull the whole system apart and start again. There are problems of teachers being overworked and burdened with too many compliance tasks, but these can be addressed.

Along the way he addresses government funding imbalances between private and public schools. There is an imbalance, but it’s small. And he points out that in terms of eventual outcomes in tertiary education there is no evidence that private schools provide a better preparation: in fact the evidence points in the opposite direction.

He concludes:

All the evidence indicates that state schools in Australia are in need of some reform – but that this amounts to nothing like a crisis. They continue to do their job very well, and generally better than the expensive private alternative.

Are our kids wagging school? If so, why?

In 2014, on any one day, 90 percent of students turned up at school. In 2022 only 86 percent of students were turning up. The fall has been even worse in schools in regions far from our major cities.

This is one of the trends identified by Nigel Howard and Andrew Bills in their Conversation contribution: School attendance rates are dropping. We need to ask students why. They postulate that the Covid experience may have contributed to this decline, but that is not supported by the evidence.

They fear that an increasing uniformity in school education, reinforced by an urge to show up strongly on NAPLAN performance metrics, is making it hard for many students to relate school education to their needs. “These standardised measures leave little room for principals and schools to cater for the needs of different communities and individual students, who will all have different strengths, weaknesses and interests”, they write.