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Byron Shire
July 14, 2024

Students drowning in debt?

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Graduate in deep water.
Rising debt levels are a problem for many graduates. Cloudcatcher Media with Midjourney AI.

Parliament hasn’t been sitting this week in Canberra, but the ramifications of recent federal budget decisions continue to ripple out, with the student debts of three million Australians rising 7.1 percent, in line with inflation.

The new rate of indexation will apply to more than $74 billion worth of outstanding HECS, HELP and vocational education loans, causing the average student debt to rise by $1,775. It’s the highest jump in more than thirty years.

While these sorts of debts aren’t recovered until incomes go beyond $45,880 (lowered by the previous government from $52,000), it’s far from free money, with accumulating debts affecting graduates wanting to get loans, including mortgages. If not paid out, student debts follow people around until asset distribution at death.

Some existing HECS debts are truly massive. According to the Australian Tax Office, the top 10 biggest debts range from $303,294 to $737,070. The student debt weight is disproportionately borne by women.

Member for Richmond Justine Elliot with Education Minister Jason Clare, visiting Mullumbimby. Photo Tree Faerie.

The ticket to the show

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare, who was born the year Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister and has described the former PM as ‘an Australian giant’, appears to have no qualms about further entrenching the HECS policy created by Bob Hawke, which dispensed with Whitlam’s dream of free university study.

Mr Clare told Sydney radio last week that tertiary education was the ‘ticket to the show’, with the average yearly income of someone who had been to university $30,000 higher than someone who had only completed Year 12. Treasurer Jim Chalmers concurred, saying the government is not considering any pause or freezing of HECS indexation, although higher education affordability and access is being examined as part of the Australian Universities Accord, which will deliver a report to government later this year.

Two months ago, Labor and the Coalition blocked a private member’s bill designed to stop indexation on student loans, with the Greens arguing at the time that millions of Australians would be worse off as a result. Minister Clare said that stopping indexation would cost taxpayers $9 billion. Crossbenchers argued that the alternative would be a ‘debt avalanche’ for graduates.

There’s no doubt that rising debt levels, coupled with the increasing cost of living, has locked many young university-educated Australians into a situation where decisions like buying a car, a first home, doing further study, or starting a business need to be postponed, in some cases indefinitely, with the average time to repay a debt (prior to the latest rise) approaching ten years. According to the National Tertiary Education Industry Union, business management graduates can expect to be repaying debt for 44 years.

Suicide Prevention Australia has formally supported reform of the HECS scheme, noting that suicide is the leading cause of death for young people, and that those who die by suicide are eight times more likely to be in debt.

Looming debt for graduates.
Looming debt. Cloudcatcher Media with Midjourney AI.

Dying to learn

We’ve still got a long way to go before the education debt situation is as dire as the USA, with college fees and debts rising 300 per cent in the last forty years, while starting salaries for graduates have barely changed. 44 million Americans now hold about $1.8 trillion in student loans.

President Joe Biden’s attempts to cancel overwhelming student debts have been challenged by Republican states in the Supreme Court.

Here in Australia, there’s no such thing as free education, even without considering the tertiary sector. Earlier this year the Futurity Investment Group found the national average cost of 13 years of government education was $75,000, after decades of under-funding of the sector. This included school fees, transport, uniform costs, sporting and electronic equipment, outside tuition, books and other costs.

Catholic education fees averaged $163,000, and independent schools averaged $209,000, rising to over $300,000 in metropolitan areas.

Jason Clare has pointed out that there was never free tertiary education in Australia, as the costs were borne by the taxpayer (and fewer people went to university in Whitlam’s time). Back then, the idea was that having more educated people in the country, regardless of whether they were rich, would benefit everyone.

How quaint.


David Lowe
David Lowe. Photo Tree Faerie

Originally from Canberra, David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interests in the environment and politics. He’s known for his campaigning work with Cloudcatcher Media.

Long ago, he did work experience in Parliament House with Mungo MacCallum.

 


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1 COMMENT

  1. Here you go again David: “ but the ramifications of recent federal budget decisions continue to ripple out, with the student debts of three million Australians rising 7.1 percent, in line with inflation.”

    This is NOT. a ramification of the budget but the way the debt has long been calculated. Without high inflation, it wasn’t seen as an issue much. Education minister Jason Clare ha already announced a review of the way this is to be calculated.

    Did you really not Know this stuff? If no you don’t, don’t write stuff without doing your homework. If the answer is yes you do then shame on you and don’t call yourself a journalist.

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