Why We Need To Make Uni And TAFE Free Again
Study, assignments, parties, and new friends await tens of thousands of students starting uni and TAFE this month. So does an enormous debt.
It takes the average student a decade to pay off their study debt.
This is as unfair as it is unsustainable. We’re burdening young people with crushing debts for the basic right of education at the time they are starting off in life. They are already face the skyrocketing cost of living, difficulty affording a home and high youth unemployment. When I was a university lecturer, many of my students were working up to three part-time jobs just to make ends meet.
That’s why the time for free higher education has well and truly come. Giving everyone access to fee-free education will give everybody a fair go and help break cycles of disadvantage. It makes it much easier to keep up with rapid advances in technology, to innovate and for long term social and economic sustainability.
Fee-free higher education is not a new concept. For 15 years, beginning with the Whitlam Government, university and technical college were free, allowing thousands to complete their education without the burden of debt.
I meet people every single day who tell me they could only go to uni back in the day because it was free, that they were the first in their families to do this for the same reason. More than 40 current politicians have benefitted from fee-free uni. Scott Morrison did three years of his degree while uni was free before the Hawke Labor government reintroduced fees. These days, the same Science degree would see a student graduate with a $28,000 debt.
Now someone studying a Bachelor of Arts, like Bill Shorten did partially for free in the 80s, would graduate with a debt of at least $19,000. Even former PM Tony Abbott, who famously tried to introduce US-style $100,000 degrees by deregulating course fees and cutting public funding for universities, studied at a time when university was free.
For too long, the major parties and the MPs who received a free uni education have treated higher education as a piggy bank with round after round of budget cuts. As a result, higher education looks more like a business with students as customers, rather than as a way to learn and build the skills needed to solve the problems of tomorrow.
We shouldn't just introduce free universities and TAFE because it was a good idea in the past, but because it is absolutely essential for the future.
Technology is rapidly changing the way we work and learn. Students graduating today will be working in industries we haven’t even imagined yet. If we are to take advantage of automation and technological change, we need to ensure that all people, especially those already in the workforce, are able to retrain and re-skill without incurring huge debts over and over again.
How could we afford free education, you ask? It’s all a matter of priorities. We can more than pay for it by scrapping fossil fuel subsidies for big mining companies and charging them royalties for extracting offshore gas which would raise tens of billions of dollars.
Given the choice between subsidising an industry that is destroying our planet and funding our future, I would hope we have the courage to choose the second option every time.
If we did, we would be in good company. Germany, Norway and Finland already have free higher education, and New Zealand’s Labour party have begun the process of making university degrees free.
By ditching the debt, we all stand to benefit from an education system that gives everyone lifelong access to learning and retraining in TAFEs and universities. It’s the fair way to prepare us for futures we have not yet imagined.