FOR & AGAINST: Free University Education

Monday, 26 May, 2014

Two students weigh up the pros and cons of free university education


Words by Travis Lines

In 1973 Gough Whitlam opened up tertiary education to all Australians by abolishing university fees. For the first time, the child of a factory worker could realistically dream of being a doctor, lawyer or teacher, without the fear of crippling debt. The 1970s was our most egalitarian decade, with an incredibly high level of social mobility and aspiration among people of all classes.

On the back of these reforms, alumni of the 1970s were able to see Australia through its largest economic boom since the gold rush, generating the wealth and living standards that we now take for granted. Australia was transformed from a backwater banana republic into the modern and competitive nation that it is today.

At present, Australia’s economy is undergoing major structural changes. We have all heard it. We can no longer be just a farming, mining and manufacturing nation. We must take advantage of emerging “smart industries” to stay competitive. Ensuring that we have an educated workforce is an economic imperative. There is no better way to achieve this than with free tertiary education.

There are a number of reasons why tertiary education must be free in order for Australia to remain among the world’s richest and most developed nations. A free system is one that rewards merit. Students who attend our best institutions are there for their talent, and nothing else. On the other hand, a user-pays model ensures that only those who are fortunate enough to exit a wealthy vagina receive a degree.

Advocates for a user-pays model often deride free tertiary education as a means for expanding enrolment numbers, which, in their opinion, will lead to a reduction of quality in our universities. This claim was completely rejected by the Kemp-Norton report, which according to ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven, “…refute[s] the dedicated fear mongering of some that wider access to university undermines quality, admits knuckle-gnawing students and produces rampant halitosis”. A user-pays model entrenches inequality and puts a stopper on creativity and talent. Its method of selecting students is based only on their parents’ wealth, something to which they are likely to have made no contribution whatsoever.

Good education is the strongest investment that a government can make. It is the best way to equip people with the skills and knowledge to help build a more prosperous nation. At a time when we are richer than ever, free tertiary education is a no-brainer.


Words by Matthew Lesh

There is no such thing as a free education. In fact, universities are very expensive. Costs include buildings and land, books and computers, academic salaries and support staff, and much more.

The question is, who should have to pay these costs? The government, through everybody’s taxes, or the student, the person who receives an overwhelming benefit from education?

The current system is a mixture of both. The taxpayer subsidises about 59 per cent of our education. We pay about 41 per cent, usually through the HECS-HELP system, a no-interest loan that we only start repaying when we earn over $51,000 per year.

Analysis of census figures has found that the average male graduate receives an additional $1.4 million in lifetime earnings, compared to an individual who undertook no more education after Year 12. For women, the estimated lifetime earnings premium is just under $1 million.

Asking taxpayers to pay for our education is elitist middle class welfare at its worst. It is asking people who do not attend university—and who will likely earn a lower lifetime income—to subsidise our education, and higher income.

The simple reality is that we choose to go to university and we get substantial benefit from our education. Hence, we have an obligation to pay for it.

Furthermore, our governments face trade-offs for every spending decision. To put more into higher education they must hurt the economy and our job prospects by taxing more, increase debt on future generations or cut other services. Consequently there will always be a reluctance to put enough money into education.

When education was ‘free’ in the 1970s, a much lower proportion of the population undertook higher education. Spending a lot of money per student to make it free means there is no funding to increase higher education places or the quality of education.

Recent discussion following the Kemp-Norton education review has focused on the idea that universities need the ability to receive more revenue from students, not be hamstrung by inevitably limited government funding. The more money that is available to universities means a higher quality of education for students and the ability to teach more students.

Every university should be an intellectual mecca. The only way to achieve this outcome is if universities have a wide variety of revenue sources, and students must be willing to pay some of these costs.

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