What is the right amount for university students to pay? A panel discussion

7 July 2017

Andrew Norton is a slender, 51-year-old man who looks closer to 30, with a smooth suit and matching voice. As the Program Director of Higher Education at the Grattan Institute, and advisor to previous and current education ministers, he is one of the most important policy experts in Australian higher education. On 6 June, he was a participant in a panel discussion at the State Library of Victoria, called ‘What is a fair price for university students to pay?’. Sitting alongside Sophie Johnston, the President of the National Union of Students, and Glyn Davis, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Norton’s was the most conservative voice on the panel.

Part of the subject up for discussion was Norton’s recommendation – adopted by the government in their federal budget earlier this year – to lower the threshold for repaying student debt, such that graduates only need to earn $42,000 per year, rather than around $55,000, before they start paying it back. On the panel, Norton argued that the policy did not target university students themselves but the high-income earners most of them would become.

He did agree, however, with an audience member who said that the mental health of students in poor financial shape was an issue. “The actual changes that we’re talking about now don’t have any impact at all on your year-to-year income while you’re a student…I do think there are issues with people who are really struggling. Youth allowance hasn’t been changed for a long time. It’s completely unrealistic about rents in major cities.” But most graduates who work full time, he said, would not be on $42,000 for long. “Often this is a transitional salary and they move up. In some ways, they’re not the main concern here. The main concern are the people who are going to work part-time potentially for their entire careers and either never repay or only repay a small share of it.”

The National Union of Students is vocal in its support for free university education. But Johnston, wisely, chose not to take an explicit stance against university fees in general, but threw facts at her opponents and raised questions. A twenty-year-old sandwiched between two policy experts well over twice her age, she spoke with confidence and passion.

“In the next 10 to 15 years,” she said, “40 per cent of the current jobs will no longer exist … This is a labour market where people are having to be re-trained and re-skilled maybe four or five times throughout their lifetime. Every time someone needs to be retrained, they can’t rack up $50,000 or $60,000 in a HECS debt.” Sometimes, after Sophie spoke, her supporters from the Union, filling most of the front three rows, broke into applause, and the moderator, Jim Middleton – a crusty old journalist who was ABC’s political editor in Canberra for two decades, covering Hawke, Keating and Howard – glared at the audience like a disapproving schoolteacher.

Davis, who was a Political Science academic for 20 years before becoming the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne in 2005, is an intelligent, soft-spoken man. He largely came across as the rational middle ground during the debate, sharing many of Sophie’s ideals but having a pragmatism that led him to endorse some of Norton’s points.

“Andrew’s point that the system has to make sense in terms of [Australia’s] taxation system is the right one. … If we want to argue for a very different system, I think it’s not just a conversation about higher education. It’s about, ‘what sort of country are we?’ What sort of taxation are we prepared to pay? Whom do we aspire to be like? That’s a really important debate, and one we haven’t really had. We just carry on a path we’ve accepted without debate.”

You can listen to the discussion in podcast form or watch the video of the event.

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