Someone always pays: why higher education is never free

Higher education costs money, so someone always has to pay. Graduate image from

After some speculation, this week education minister Christopher Pyne has said the Coalition has no plans to increase university fees. His comments come after much debate over selling the HELP – formerly known as HECS – debt , or more accurately, securitising it. In both instances, the mere hint of changing university fees or the HELP loan scheme was met with visceral responses.

Even the announcement of a review of the demand driven system of funding, which largely has implications for student access to university, has prompted concern over possible change in student contributions.

Little wonder. A quarter century after the introduction, how much students contribute is still the public issue around university education in Australia.

Take the proposal for selling the A$23 billion loan book. A sensible public policy discussion around it becomes quickly very difficult. As any proposal to change the HELP system becomes the blazing emblem of new ways to punish those who dare seek higher education.

Concern over anything that might affect student debt and how it is repaid is understandable. Students end their university education with a sizable debt, albeit in the form of a very favourable loan collected through the tax system. Years of HECS-HELP repayments can have very real consequences for some former students long into the future.

The government could again make higher education free to all students. Fees could be gone in one deft strike with public funding to replace HECS-HELP. It could probably be done for $5 billion a year or so (depending on who you ask). And for a relatively modest cost remembering the Commonwealth budget is near $400 billion.

But this is unlikely to happen. Current political budget priorities mean it is difficult to imagine an additional $5 billion increase to defence or health, let alone for higher education.

In all probability, the Australian public accept students should contribute toward their higher education and thinks the HECS-HELP system is a fair way to do it. If they really did not, they would likely have punished the government that introduced HECS, or the subsequent one that raised it twice. Whether we like it or not, over time politicians usual reflect broad public opinion.

Students (and often enough their parents) are fully justified in asking whether taking on such a debt is worth it. Protest over the mere suggestion of selling the loan book is nothing compared to the anger of half a million plus Commonwealth supported students feeling they are not getting a “fair go”.

Education is never free. Someone always has to pay for it. If not students, then at present it largely falls to the Australian public.

If universities, their students and supporters want HECS-HELP unchanged (or a return to more public money subsidising students), the onus is on them to make the public case. Shrill cries of victimhood will not likely cut it.

Universities do produce significant public good through teaching and research. Yet this is not always as self-evident to the wider public as many people in the system assume. When faced with powerful arguments for why students should pay more, and why more should be done with less, it is up to those privileged enough to be part of Australian education to secure deep and lasting support for public funding for universities by making a stronger case.

However much those of us in the system may at time wish it were otherwise, universities have an implicit contract with state and society that requires institutions to explain publically what they do.

Relying on often-vague expressions of public goodwill is a risky strategy for a sector faced with the pressing forces of technological change and international competition.