Andrew Norton argues that Jenny Macklin is putting students off university with her talk of big student debts.
Itâ€™s hard to say for sure whether Laborâ€™s previous campaigns on â€˜$100,000 degreesâ€™ have affected student demand, which was lower this year than last. It seems more likely that the booming job market, including a recovery in the number of full-time jobs for teenagers, is the main cause. But anecdotally many people who should know better assume that university is much more expensive than is truly the case. For example, in an interview Macklin did this morning a journalist asked her: “Does it come down to the stage where the poor are just not in the race to get into these degrees any more?”
Most middle-class families with teenagers will presumably inform themselves of the real options. But working-class parents who just notice headlines about $200,000 degrees may not realise that they would pay about 10% of that, and give their kids expensively wrong advice.
Andrew may be drawing a longish bow, but I’m constantly amazed that Labor – the party that gave us HECS and did most to put in place the means-tested welfare state – is now eschewing any targeted measures when it comes to higher education.
In Imagining Australia, we proposed abolishing the “dollars-for-points” university entrance system (which allows those who pay more to get in at a lower standard), and argued that the cap on HECS be removed (on the basis that students from regional universities should not have to pay the same prices as those from city universities).
Both of these are pretty free-marketish reforms. We then argued that there were two straightforward ways of boosting university attendance by the poor:
To increase the number of talented, but poor, students entering higher education, we propose that parental resources be considered when determining university admissions. The admission scores for students in the poorest quarter of the populationâ€”who are unlikely to have had access to the educational resources of their more affluent peersâ€”should automatically be adjusted upwards by a few percentage points, on a scale that tapers off as parental income rises. To administer the scheme, students from the poorest backgrounds could supply the tax file numbers of their parents during the admissions process. University admission centres could then calculate parentsâ€™ five-year average income, which would be used to add points to the official Tertiary Entrance Rank of poorer students. Although some people may be uncomfortable assisting the disadvantaged according to a formula, the rigidity of the current standardised formula is no fairer and does not assist the neediest at the margin. Essay-based entry systems are also an inferior alternative to boost the numbers of students from poorer backgrounds. Experience in the United States suggests that while personal statements provide the chance for students to tell their life story, they too often create a â€˜disadvantage Olympicsâ€™ in which those from privileged backgrounds are better able to articulate their tales of woe.
Increasing the university attendance rates of the least privi-leged Australians also involves addressing the question of debt. Students from poor backgrounds tend to be more wary of incurring debt than students from middle and higher income families, discouraging them from pursuing higher education. Although, as discussed earlier, poorer graduates also receive a boost in their lifetime earnings, we need to reduce the risk that underprivileged students will be deterred from higher education by their perceptions of the difficulties of servicing a HECS debt post-graduation. For the poorest quarter of the population, we should trial a HECS discount of up to 10 per cent. Representing a small reduction in actual fees, it sends a positive message to prospective students that Australia is encouraging them to seize every opportunity to better their lives.