Face-off: Should tertiary education be free?

Two reporters go head to head on a topical issue

Debate podium Art: Stephanie Barahona

Grace Franki argues ‘for’:

Before Whitlam abolished university fees in 1974 he said, “we believe that a student’s merit, rather than a parent’s wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education.”

This principle of equality is at the heart of the case for free tertiary education and operates on two levels. First, everyone should be equally able to access tertiary education, regardless of their wealth or background. Free tertiary education is the only way to ensure this. Opponents may point to the existence of HECS schemes as a means to ensure everyone can access university. However, the prospect of a debt in the tens of thousands is a significant disincentive to many underprivileged students who are also sacrificing years of lost potential income in order to study. Secondly, education is the most powerful equalising force in society. A university education enables students to radically change the financial situation of their upbringing and allows a unique level of social mobility. Importantly, these benefits accrue the most to students from low-SES backgrounds — those who are least likely to attend university under a paid model.

Additionally, free tertiary education is particularly important in the context of the Australian workforce which increasingly favours skilled, tertiary educated workers, systematically locking out those who do not fit this description from good careers and well-paying jobs.

As we exit the mining boom Australia needs to move towards a more intelligent, service-based economy. Education is already one of Australia’s biggest exports and minimising economic barriers will ensure an even more skilled and diverse workforce. In an age of increasing automation, tertiary education equips citizens with generalised skills and qualifications that can be adapted to a changing workforce. Free education is a long-term investment in a stable economy.

Finally, a more educated population is more likely to understand civic and democratic institutions — to be thoughtful in how they cast their vote during elections and engage in reasoned discussion about political issues. They are also more likely to have a good understanding of issues of social justice and empathy for marginalised groups.

Today’s political leaders are the product of free tertiary education in the 1970s and helped shape the subsequent decades of growth which transformed Australia into the modern, egalitarian nation it is today. In a volatile and unpredictable world, young people ought to be afforded the same privilege.

Tilini Rajapaksa argues ‘against’:

The push for free tertiary education is commonly based on an erroneous belief that abolishing the HECS system would remove barriers to prospective students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, abolishing HECS is not only a completely inappropriate way to address socioeconomic disadvantage, but is based on an elitist notion that individuals with academic aptitude inherently deserve expensive benefits at the cost of the remainder of society in an economic system which functions to reward them over those with other skills.

Currently, taxpayers contribute 59 per cent of the average university course’s cost, while recipients pay the rest once their annual income reaches $55,874. HECS allows students to enter university knowing they won’t have to pay until they are in a financial position to do so.

If fees were abolished, the number of places at public universities would nearly halve, or tertiary education expenditure would have to significantly increase to maintain the current number of places available. The latter option is generally espoused as a worthwhile investment to improve education accessibility for low-SES students.

Financial background undeniably plays a significant role in university attendance. Researchers at ANU found privately educated students were 24 per cent more likely to enter university than government educated students in 2016. In NSW, this inequality is even more pronounced with private school students receiving 52.4 per cent of university offers in 2017.  However, abolishing HECS would not address this issue, instead conferring a significant financial benefit to an already predominantly affluent group of people at the taxpayer’s expense. To increase equal access into university, funding could instead be allocated towards increasing the quality and consistency of education available to secondary and primary school students, or to provide affordable student housing and low-SES bursaries.

However, even in a hypothetical system where academic aptitude was the only determinant in university entrance, the principle of meritocracy — rewarding those who display intelligence and effort — is still an unjust basis for abolishing tertiary education fees.

Tertiary education, unlike schooling, healthcare or welfare, is not readily available to anyone who needs it. It is offered to a select group (approximately 37% of 20 year olds today — a proportion which could be even less if fees were abolished completely as discussed above) whose academic aptitude is largely genetically predestined. It would be deeply unfair to award an expensive subsidy to those who have won the academic aptitude lottery given that academic aptitude combined with their tertiary education will generally lead to more lucrative professions in our capitalist society.

In our society, free tertiary education is an inappropriate goal that fails to address the socioeconomic barriers of entry to tertiary education and, if achieved, would divert public funding away from services and institutions that benefit the whole of society towards an exclusive minority.

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