Opinion //

All a-loan

EJ Sokias opines on the changes to Centrelink’s student schemes

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Once upon a time, free education was heralded as the progressive push that would break down social barriers and give equal opportunity to all. It lasted 14 years before being scrapped and replaced with the HECS scheme we’re all familiar with: study now, pay later. Yes, HECS is meant to ensure equal opportunity. It also ensures across-the-board debt accrual. Rack up a debt, and pay it off later. But don’t worry. You’re not alone. Everyone does it.

“Pay later” seems to be the same tune the Federal Government is whistling as it implements changes to various Centrelink student schemes. The student “scholarship” schemes Abstudy, Austudy and Youth Allowance have all had a Federal shakeup. Changes do not apply retrospectively, but anyone entering the scheme from 2016 onwards is subject to the new rules. For the uninitiated, the old scheme looks like this:

Every fortnight, a payment is deposited into a student’s account. The money helps them afford their living expenses. Additionally, the beginning of each semester brings with it a $1025 lump-sum “scholarship” to assist with purchasing textbooks. Any income declared by the student will influence how much they receive from Centrelink.

The new scheme, effective January 2016, changes the $1025 lump-sum into an optional loan. That is, if you need the money for textbooks, you can still access it, but it will take the form of HECS-style loan.

And herein lies the rub: anyone receiving benefits under the pre-2016 Centrelink scheme, who takes a break from study, must re-apply under the new scheme when they resume. Taking a break includes:

i. taking a semester off studying;

ii. having six consecutive pay cycles of not receiving student payments due to earnings;

iii. spending six consecutive pay cycles out of Australia.

This serves as a warning to students under the pre-2016 scheme: think twice before taking time off studying. “Free money” is a thing of the past.

And lo, the “scholarship” became a loan.

The Government’s message is resoundingly clear: Australia is inching further and further away from “free education”.

With proposals to decrease subsidies for universities – subsequently increasing a degree’s cost – and privatisation sweeping higher education, the noose that is the US college system is tightening. The additional burden introduced by Centrelink’s scheme change only intensifies the insurmountable debt that students must one day confront.

Ex-treasurer Joe Hockey said it best when he proclaimed “the age of entitlement is over”. Indeed, the age of debt has begun, and with it, a belle èpoque of intergenerational inequity.