Australian students have described a plan to remove financial support from failing students as an “abhorrent attack” that will cause major damage to young people’s wellbeing and success.
Education Minister Dan Tehan on Thursday morning revealed a plan to pull financial support from students flunking 50 per cent of their university subjects.
The proposed legislation was described as a way to help prevent students from accruing huge HECS and HELP debts.
"These measures will ensure students can't take on a study load they won't complete, leaving them without a qualification but a large debt," Tehan said.
"The lack of transparency of a student's enrolment has allowed some non-genuine students to enrol and re-enrol at multiple providers at the same time."
He said the government has found cases of students accruing the highest levels of debt after being continuously enrolled at multiple providers.
“[This has resulted] in debts ranging from $220,000 up to $660,000 combined with very low pass rates – on average these students have passed just one in every five subjects they have attempted.”
The legislation requires universities ensure all students are “academically suitable” for their chosen courses, and that students maintain a reasonable completion rate.
Grattan Institute research has shown that around 6 per cent of university students will fail every subject in their first year. The Government currently holds around $66.6 billion in HELP debt, and anticipates 15 per cent of that will never be paid.
The Department of Education, Skills and Employments estimates the proposal would affect around 2,500 students annually.
Students hit back
However, the National Union of Students (NUS) has said the bill is anything but helpful.
NUS national president Molly Willmott said the scheme was an appalling attempt to incentivise success “through fear”.
“It is punishment for students who the government unfairly deem as lazy and ill-equipped to access education, without property consideration for their experience or right to study that degree,” Willmott said in a statement on Thursday.
Willmott noted that the package will include space for universities to waive the punishment for illness or bereavement, but warned it still fails to account for the broader reasons a student may not succeed at university.
Our statement on today's announcement that students will lose taxpayer support upon poor performance in their study. This is an abhorrent attack on students that incentivizes success through fear. Read more below #HigherEducation #auspol pic.twitter.com/zr8tgYmG1U— Molly Willmott (@NUS_President) August 12, 2020
She said the ongoing pandemic and associated recession will hit young people hardest, while financial instability, disability, education quality and limited access to study will continue to pose barriers to university success.
Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi and shadow minister for education Tanya Plibersek echoed those words, questioning why the government would make it harder to go to university.
“Our year 11 and 12 students are having a hell of a year, so why is Scott Morrison so determined to target them in their first years of uni?” Plibersek questioned on Twitter.
Australians on Twitter also set ‘HECS’ to trending as they shared their experiences within the university system.
Look I get the policy but it’s yet another kick in the guts for year 12s currently doing trials. Uni Fees doubled, unis sacking staff & reducing courses, none of the fun of final year of school, infinitely more stress ..any light? support? Compassion? Kindness? Policy to help ? https://t.co/yuaQZQuAPm— Sarah Macdonald (@sarahvmac) August 12, 2020
Dr Natalie Osborne said she had come across many students who were failing subjects but couldn’t drop them as they would lose their Centrelink payments if they didn’t study a certain number of courses.
“They know they are racking up a big HECS debt, but Centrelink is how they're paying their rent *today*. The HECS debt is a future problem compared to the need to keep a roof over their head,” Osborne said.
Just to flesh out the impact of Dan Tehan's terrible proposal to cut students who fail 50% of their courses out of HECS. I've had variations on this conversation many times during my time as a tutor/lecturer - a student has fallen so far behind that, even with every accommodation— Natalie Osborne (@DrNatOsborne) August 12, 2020
The executive director of the Per Capita thinktank, Emma Dawson said it was “clearly about ensuring only the ‘right’ people get to go to university”.
She said it would act as another barrier for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those who don’t have a family history of tertiary education, First Nations students and students from non-English speaking backgrounds.
I’m struggling to find the words for this. It’s so clearly about ensuring only the “right” people get to go to university, putting yet more barriers in the way of poor kids, those whose parents didn’t go to Uni, First Nations kids, those from NESB backgrounds. 1/2 #auspol https://t.co/f1brJOIm2L— Emma Dawson (@DawsonEJ) August 13, 2020
“It’s social engineering, a blatant attempt to reverse progress made towards equity in education over the last 40 years. It’s a deliberate restriction of social mobility to restore a class based society in which your chances in life depend on who your parents are,” Dawson said.
The proposed legislation comes shortly after Tehan announced that some course fees would be adjusted to push students into certain industries.
Affected degrees include those in the humanities, with course fees for those more than doubling.
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