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Students should pay more, earn less: Commission of Audit

Raft of recommendations indicate students will be in the firing line, reports Justin Pen.


University students should pay more for their degrees, the Commission of Audit recommended yesterday.

The Commission proposed the average contribution paid by students increase from “41 per cent to 55 per cent”. It additionally suggests the HELP-debt repayment threshold drop from “$51,309 per year to the minimum wage of $32,354” per annum.

It also recommended the minimum wage drop from 56% of average weekly earnings to 44%, meaning the minimum wage would drop to $25,422.80, or, from $622.20 a week to $488.90.

The Commission’s findings follow comments made by Education Minister Christopher Pyne who indicated last week the government would further deregulate the tertiary education sector in a speech to a London think-tank.

In line with the endorsements of the Kemp-Norton review into the tertiary education sector’s demand-driven funding system released a fortnight ago, Pyne declared an intention to provide federal funding to private universities, TAFEs and non-university higher education providers.

Though the current demand-driven system has seen a 32 per cent surge in domestic undergraduate enrollments in 2012, a report compiled by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) found that 80 per cent of these students came from medium to high socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds.

To afford the recommendations, the report cited a submission of the Group of Eight, a partnership of elite Australian universities, which recommended the partial abolition of Commonwealth Supported Places and an overall increase to student contributions.

The review also proposed the imposition of a “loan fee” to be paid on top of students’ HELP debt.

Several Vice-Chancellors from the Group of Eight have made public their support for increased deregulation, including Professor Ian Young of the Australian National University, and Fred Hilmer of the University of New South Wales.

In an op-ed published in The Australian, Young proposed the implementation of additional equity scholarships as a bulwark against the inequalities that typically arise from deregulation.

“Such scholarships could address both tuition costs and living expenses, thus addressing one of the real barriers to study suffered by low socioeconomic status students,” he said.

A report compiled by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education in 2008, however, noted that “scholarships, bursaries and fee remissions [were] not the entire solution to increasing access”, citing complementing factors such as the insufficient provision of Youth Allowance.

The Kemp-Norton review additionally highlights the conversion of Student Start-Up Scholarships to income-contingent loans as a potential, key area of saving.

The review further recommends the dropping of the target of 20 per cent low SES enrolment by 2020. In 2012, only 8.64 per cent of students enrolled at Sydney University came from low SES backgrounds, compared to the national average of 15.7%.

“The Commission of Audit is targeting those who need financial assistance the most,” said SRC President Jennifer Light. “If these recommendations are to be implemented University will be a luxury to those who can afford it.”

“A lowering of the minimum wage will mean students must work more to be able to sustain their current standard of living”, said SRC Welfare Officer Brendan Wylie.

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence noted that the current demand-driven system had “had a modest positive impact overall levels of participation” on students from low SES, Indigenous, and rural and remote backgrounds, in a submission to Kemp in December 2013.

When pressed for comment, the Vice-Chancellor offered to write an opinion piece for Honi Soit about his personal views on the matter, but declined to comment in any other format.