Student Advocacy: Free Education

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Many countries throughout the world such as France and Denmark provide free tertiary education. Others, such as Guatemala and Slovakia, education is not available to all and people have to fight for the right to learn. In Australia, we have the right to education but must pay for this privilege. Are we paying for something that should be provided to us freely? Is the Macquarie University Student Amenities Fee another cost we shouldn’t have to pay?

Damian Pace (All1ance) and Ned Barsi (Action) discuss the reasons for and against paying for tertiary education.

[box_dark]Damien Pace is an undergraduate law student originally from Canberra. He is actively involved with the student representative group All1ance and very keen to improve the overall student experience on campus.[/box_dark]

[pullquote_right]“‘Free’ goods are rarely used efficiently.” Damien Pace argues that paying for tertiary education and student services and amenities is necessary.[/pullquote_right]

A right to free education is a “claim” right? Such rights sound superficially desirable, however, their social and economic impacts are frequently negative. For instance, the claim of a “right to a job” expands the role of the government in the market and creates the uncompetitive and inefficient workforce often seen in Socialist countries. Similarly, the overall benefits of a “right to free education” may be illusory.

Nevertheless, many services are paid solely by the state, previously including tertiary education. There are three reasons why the current system of direct government grants, in conjunction with delayed student contributions through HECS indexed loans, is preferable to “free” or government paid education.

Student contributions have helped increase university funding and student numbers: Nearly one million students attend university today – an unprecedented number – which has helped pay for the sector without recourse to substantial tax increases.

‘Free’ goods are rarely used efficiently. Free education can facilitate students’ delaying their university competition, or else encourage poorly considered enrollments.

Students should pay for the real benefits they receive. A university graduate, over their working life, will earn 70 per cent more than non-graduates. Consequently, the cost shouldn’t fall exclusively on taxpayers, many of whom might never have studied.

Whilst Australia is the third most expensive place in the world to study in, the current HECS system allows us to delay these fees until we work. The upfront $263 SSAF payment, however, is different. The average weekly income for a full-time student is $300, and so charges of this kind are significant. Their resulting increase in part time work, economic reliance on parents and the state, can hardly be seen as a socially desirable outcome for a policy designed to improve the university experience.

[box_dark]Ned Barsi is in his second year of an Arts degree majoring in Public Policy. He is also the president of the Macquarie University Labor Club. [/box_dark]

[pullquote_left]“The HECS system recognises that the individual gets a personal benefit out of their university education.” Ned Barsi believes that we should get the most out of what we pay for.[/pullquote_left]

In 1989, the Hawke Labor Government introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS – HELP) on the principle that all Australians with the ability and desire to attend university should have the opportunity. It is an effective scheme providing a means to finance the mass expansion of university education beyond a tiny elite group of Australians who could afford to pay the fees upfront. By deferring payment of the debt until you enter the workforce and earn at least $49,100 per year, people from disadvantaged and lower socioeconomic backgrounds have the chance to get a university education.

While we may all generally support the intention of the HECS system, the question arises: why not just make university free? Danish universities are free for EU citizens, while French universities are almost wholly funded by the state – only charging minor costs to students. Depending on the institution, the cost for a Masters degree in France is between AU$970 and AU$4,525, while the average cost of a degree in Australia is $14,400. Australia has flirted with the idea, and for a brief period between 1974 and 1988 we had a free university system.

The HECS system recognises that the individual gets a personal benefit out of their university education. According to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, a university graduate is more likely, over their lifetime, to earn in excess of $1 million more than a person who does not finish Year 12. The HECS debt is an interest-free loan that deducts a minimum of four per cent of your annual wage until it is paid off. To fund the free university system, taxes are higher in both Denmark and France. I believe that it is fair that some of the cost for a university degree is shouldered by the person gaining the degree instead of being taken out of general revenue. HECS is a very fair and equitable way to achieve this.

Whether or not you support the Student Services Amenity Fee, you may as well get the most value out of your money. The money is mostly used to provide services and facilities on campus, including support services and grants to many clubs and societies. So join a club and enjoy all the funding and good company!