National Union of Students (NUS) President Mark Pace spoke last week on behalf of tertiary students at the Senate committee for Educational and Employment Legislation, arguing against changes to HECS payment structures. A Bill proposed by the Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, would lower the HECS repayment threshold, changing the payment structure and creating a lifetime cap on HECS debt. Pace recommended that the changes to the bill should be rejected, and reiterated the NUS position that tertiary education should be free.
The Bill before the Committee would create a lifetime cap on HECS borrowing, where no further funded study would be permitted, even once HECS debt is paid off. It further proposed that the income threshold for repayment be reduced to $45 000. These proposed changes are the result of reports which highlighted that over 10 000 students had HECS debts of more than $100 000. Representatives from Universities Australia argued that the cap would particularly affect lifetime students and postgraduates, while the changes to the payment structure would more dramatically affect women, who were more likely to go back to university later in life.
The NUS’ submission argued that the changes are “intended to capture debtors on below-average wages” and that the idea of a professional student is a “non- existent issue”. Pace stated that such students, “if they do exist, … are very few in number and …do not represent the student population. When questioned by Liberal Senator James Paterson, Pace argued that university should be a “‘public good’”, but when pressed, Pace admitted that he didn’t understand the economic definition of a public good. Universities Australia representative Catriona Jackson and Pace both stated that they had not been consulted on the Bill, or the impact it would have on students.
The NUS ran a post-budget campaign in 2017 to ‘Make Education Free Again’, maintaining its stance that education is a public good. Their submission argued,“if the repayment of HELP debt is truly an issue that the Government is concerned about, the answer is to raise the wages of low and middle income earning debtors relative to high-income earners and thus increase the number of workers whose earnings exceed the existing thresholds.” In addition to the report, the NUS website asks students to sign a petition and call local members in order to stop the government “bleed(ing) students and lower income graduates”.
The Senate Committee released their report on the hearing today, recommending that the lifetime cap be replaced with a cap on outstanding HECS debts, but that otherwise the Bill be passed. The Greens released a dissenting report at the same time, stating that “simply pushing additional costs onto students, to be funded by debt, means ballooning debt with no corresponding increase in the capacity of students to service that debt.” The Bill will be tabled by the Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, whose push to change HECS was last year rejected by parliament. At a Universities Australia meeting, he stated that “he wasn’t bluffing last year and he isn’t bluffing this year either”, causing concern as to how strongly he will push for changes to student repayments.
Pace, a National Labor Students (Labor Left) member who was previously the president of the Adelaide University SRC, was the only student invited to speak at the public hearing of the committee.