Hooray for HELP


The Higher Education Loan Programme is not the bogeyman it is currently being made out to be – it must be defended and preserved

In stark contrast to the shock and awe commentary, the reality is it is actually a genius Australian invention which has provided affordable access to university for generations of Australians.

For me, it’s as important as other iconic, societal changing Australian innovations, including the secret ballot, black box flight recorder and Wi-Fi.

It is understandable that the spotlight has been placed on the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) given the current cost of living pressures across the economy and Australians young and old feeling the pinch. And, by all means, we should have a meaningful debate about student contributions, the anomalous impact of current inflation and the settings around repayments, but what should not be up for debate is the foundation of the HELP system – it must be defended and preserved.

Its key features have always been to ensure there is real access to university and that this access to university is not price prohibitive. Remember the foundation of HELP is that not a single dollar is paid upfront, so no one is priced out. Repayments are only asked of you when you when you are earning a full-time wage. This means you only pay when you can afford it.

The Hawke Government introduced HELP as a way of sustainably and fairly financing a radical uplift in student participation. It would not have been possible without it. Just as the reforms in the wake of the Bradley Review enabled a whole new cohort to access university, so too did the Dawkins reforms.

Since 1989 over 4.9m students have benefited from the HELP system. If participation rates for young people had remained below 20 per cent as they were in the 1980s, a million Australians would have missed out on a university education.

Many column inches have been written, using the current spike in inflation to undermine HELP as a system, and as a proxy for doing away with student contributions and introducing so-called “free” education. The reality is that removing the established HELP system risks a future government radically cutting places or reintroducing fees without the HELP safety net that all students have come to rely on.

Just like some of our other notable inventions, HELP has been so successful that it has turbo-charged university sectors right around the world. It has been copied in Hungary, New Zealand, South Korea and the United Kingdom, successfully driving millions more students through the system.

Just like any other machine though, it may need a tune-up.

Some future reforms could include raising the income threshold closer to the median wage or changing repayments to a marginal rate on income above the threshold. Thought could be given to account for family circumstances, or to smooth out or cap indexation. We could also look at fixing the wide disparity in student contributions or allow for indexation pauses. But none of these reforms would be possible if we were to do away with HELP.

Let’s resist the temptation to pull apart the entire system because the fundamentals are sound and have stood the test of time.

We are at a fork in the road in this grand year of review and higher education reform. The answer is not to tear down a world-class system which has worked extraordinarily well for almost 35 years, the answer is to make it even better.

Luke Sheehy is Executive Director of the ATN Universities


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