Over a few days in early November, Australia stopped to reflect on the legacy of Gough Whitlam and his Labor government (1972-75). We watched a long line of political, community and business leaders talk, in mostly positive terms, about the lasting reforms of his government. The Whitlam government’s reforms to higher education were rightly remembered as being instrumental to permanently changing, for the better, the Australian community.
Prior to Whitlam, students in Australia were charged substantial up-front tuition fees. Those students who were not wealthy could only afford to access higher education through a small number of scholarships (that generally went to private schools), by bonded scholarships (typically where the students on graduation were required to work for a particular employer for up to seven years eg. teaching) or by taking out a large personal loan.
In 1974 the Whitlam government abolished up-front tuition fees and his government took over the running and funding of higher education. As a consequence the higher education sectors grew substantially with students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, a large percentage of them being female students, accessing universities for the first time.
Attempts by the conservative Fraser government to reintroduce full fee paying tuition fees in 1977 and 1982 backed by student loans were unsuccessful, partly because the banks were unwilling to underwrite loans for students. The banks’ reluctance was basically due to the experiences in the United States of America where graduates default of loans at the time were running at over 20%. That is to say over 20% of American students were unable to meet their loan repayments and consequently forced into a form of bankruptcy. Shocking statistics that continue to this day.
In 1996, the Howard government introduced changes that all students would have to meet part of the costs of their education and also introduced the concept that university fees for courses of study be based on the cost to the university of providing the education. Howard also partially deregulated HECS fees, however, continued to ensure that students could access a loan from the Commonwealth and not be obliged to repay those monies until their salary reached a particular threshold. And while successive conservative governments attempted to unpick the Whitlam reforms it is fair to say until 2014, this was done with a relatively light touch.
In assuming office in 2013 the Abbott government moved quickly to introduce major reforms to the funding and operations of the Australian universities sector, including changes to the repayment regime for the HECS scheme that involve a lowering of the repayment threshold and the introduction of a real rate of interest on outstanding debt.
Christopher Pyne, the Education Minister and the chief proponent for university deregulation is openly hostile towards the current system and a passionate advocate of user pays. When announcing the proposed changes the Minister was adamant it was a “good deal for students”, and that “deregulation is the only way to respond to what students and employers want. It is the only way to set our universities free to ensure they can deliver what they need. It is the only way to ensure Australia is not left behind”.
And while acknowledging that students will have to pay more the Minister claimed those with a university degree “earn up to 75% more than someone without a degree “or “can earn an extra $1,000,000 over their working life”. Thankfully most commentators and political groups outside of government are not buying this vacuous ideological dogma and see these proposed changes as unfair and a backward step for both universities and students.
They understand that, increasing fees and the interest rate on student debt, will increase repayments and repayment periods for all graduates and also the impact will be biggest for those who earn less. Furthermore women, who are more likely to fall into lower income groups and more likely to take time off to raise a family, are the ones who will be hardest hit by the proposals.
For those contemplating a career in nursing and midwifery the changes are potentially devastating and may have long term deleterious effects on the provision of healthcare in Australia.
Nursing and midwifery education are relatively high cost courses, largely because of the clinical component. Faced with the opportunities arising from the deregulation of courses of study, ANMF is fearful that universities will be drawn to offering courses of study where the cost of providing the course is lower.
It is also likely that the deregulation of course fees (thereby providing an opportunity for universities to increase revenue) will encourage many universities to offer more places to international students. The ANMF, while recognising the importance of international ties and reputation, does not support the provision of places to overseas students, if it impacts negatively on access to places for domestic students, supply for the domestic workforce, and the overall quality of education provided.
Then there is the impact of the increase in course fees. Despite the government’s conviction that higher student fees will not act as a significant disincentive to participation from lower income groups, ANMF believes that, faced with escalating fees and longer periods of debt, many students will be reluctant to undertake courses that do not have clear pathways to high remuneration ( eg. medicine). Any move away from nursing and midwifery study will have long term impact on the provision of healthcare
The ANMF supports a university sector that is based on the principles of equity, fairness and quality. We do not believe cuts to tertiary funding, deregulated course fees and increased student fees and debt meet these principles.
ANMF will continue to call on the government to scrap these changes and draw on the Whitlam legacy as evidence of the long term benefits to all Australians of a university sector that remains accessible to all and not just the privileged few.
Senior Federal Industrial Officer