How Far We’ve Fallen

In Defence of Universal Student Unionism

The 2017 OECD ‘Education at a Glance Report’ has ranked Australia’s public investment into higher education in the bottom four of the world’s advanced economies. This puts Australia at 30th of 34th nations. 0.7 of Australia’s GDP is spent on investment into higher education. In contrast, private investment into Australia’s tertiary education is double that of the national OECD average of 0.5%, sitting at 1.1%. Australian students are paying the sixth highest fees in the world as a percentage of Australia’s national income.

Successive conservative governments have only attempted to cut more public investment in the Australian tertiary education sector, with the 2017 Federal Budget proposing to cut 2.8 billion dollars in funding and attempting to charge students more by increasing fees by 7% whilst forcing students to pay back their debts at a HECS repayment threshold of $45,000. While these budget proposals failed to pass the Senate in 2017, the Federal Government is still trying to push through its budget “reforms” in the Mid-Year Financial Economic Outlook (MYEFO) announcements in December. Each year the Federal Government releases a Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). In the 2017-18 MYEFO, the Turnbull Government has proposed that they will introduce a number of budget savings that will cut higher education funding.

The proposals which do not require Senate approval include:

  • Freezing the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding for bachelor level courses in 2018 and 2019 at 2017 levels, which would ignore increased costs for additional student places or inflation. This equates to almost 10,000 undergraduate places being unfunded.
  • Increasing CGS funding for Bachelor’s degrees in 2020 and beyond by about 1.2% a year, yet only for universities which meet performance targets finalised in 2018.
  • Removing 3,000 funded postgraduate student places.
  • Ending the funding for over 1,000 student places allocated under priority skill and regional needs, including 419 postgraduate places in allied health and nursing, 533 in language diplomas and 250 in enabling and preparatory courses

The Government is also pursuing some cuts that do require Senate approval through their Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018, which includes:

  • Lowering the HECS-HELP repayment threshold to $45,000
  • Changing the HECS-HELP repayment schedule to require students to pay back their debts earlier
  • Introducing a lifetime lending limit for HECS-HELP capped at $104,000 for most students and $150,000 for students in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science  

According to Government estimates, the proposals would save $2.2 billion over the next four years.

The successive funding cuts of Australian universities means that they are falling in international rankings, with universities in Hong Kong and China beginning to overtake some Australian universities as a result of the higher levels of public investment into their tertiary education sector. A system that doesn’t publicly fund higher education is one that doesn’t invest in our future. The public good is more important than political agendas.


Words by Kayla Dickeson, National Disabilities Officer of the National Union of Students

Photography by Caitlyn Burgess

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