SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: If you’ve recently finished a university degree or are currently studying, you are probably dreading today. HECS debt goes up today by 7.1 per cent, the highest in more than three decades. That means a $25,000 debt will go up by almost two grand. Catriona Jackson is the Chief Executive of Universities Australia and is in Townsville today for the investiture ceremony for the new JCU Chancellor, Ngiare Brown. She’s with me now. Good morning.
CATRIONA JACKSON: G’day, Susan. Apologies if my voice is a little bit rough. I was with colleagues in the pub last night cheering the Maroons on, so excuse me.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Oh, that’s a perfect excuse. No worries at all. We’ll talk about the ceremony very shortly. We’ll talk about that, but a rough day for HECS debtors. What’s your message to students and alumni?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I completely understand why people are concerned about debt. Everyone has been confronted with the really nasty cost of living increases. Every time you go to the supermarket – milk, bread, chips and everything seems to be going up. The one thing students don’t need to worry about is a HECS loan. The loan they have for their university degree is not like a car loan, not like a house loan. While the size of the debt will get bigger today, it doesn’t mean you are paying more next week out of your tax or the week after or the week after. It’s just HECS debts are entirely different to all the other debts we have for houses and cars and all those sorts of things. It’s not that there’s more money coming out of your pocket for your HECS debt this week or next week, it’s that the term of the loan gets longer.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Lending institutions consider HECS in the same way as other personal loans and credit cards when evaluating your ability to service a loan, and it features in debt-to-income ratio calculations. Do you think this will deter people from studying at uni?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We really hope it doesn’t deter people from studying at university. My message would be don’t be deterred because the HECS scheme is specifically designed so that it doesn’t create a barrier to students getting into university. That was the original policy intent. At the moment, there’s a great big review going on of all the higher education policy settings. We are really pleased to see this. We’ve been asking for this, just a bit of a freshen up, a good look at HECS just to make sure that it’s serving that original policy intent. When it was first introduced decades and decades ago now, most people going into university were 17, 18, maybe 19 and didn’t have a whole lot of other obligations. One of the problems for HECS is that it’s been fiddled with and fiddled with and fiddled with over the last couple of decades. It’s really important that it’s balanced properly so that it does what it was meant to do in the first place – provide funding for a much bigger number of students to go to university, but at the same time have no barrier for entry. Other countries have upfront fees, they have commercial loan arrangements. They are diabolical. One of the good things about Australia is that we don’t have that, but it is time to have a good look at the system and just make sure that the system is working in line with the changes in higher education now. Lots of students are now mature age, more than half the students going into university are now mature age. They’re not 17 with no financial obligations, no family obligations. Also, there’s stacks more lifelong learning now. You might do a degree, you might do a TAFE qualification, you might do nothing, and you might want to build on your degree later. We just need to make sure that all those policy things are working together and working together with all the other things like applying for a house loan.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: With inflation rising so rapidly, coupled with the huge fee increases which we saw last year with arts courses more than doubling in price. Some students are saying one year of uni costs the same as perhaps older siblings entire degrees. What is being done in this space to sort of help level the playing field for current and future students?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Again, those changes in the fees, students have got to pay the portion, they’ve got to pay for their degree. We objected to it at the time, and we continue to object to it. It sends a very bad message when government is telling you if you want to do a humanities degree, you should pay almost all of the cost of it. So, again, through this review that’s going on now with Jason Clare, the Education Minister, and an independent panel conducting that review, we’ve called for a really good look at those changes, which were described as the Job-ready Graduates changes in the last couple of years. One of the important things there is to sort out that genuine inequity with students studying certain degrees paying almost all the costs. The presumption we’ve had in this country is that university education is a private good, a good for the individual, but a good thing for the community as well. So the taxpayer pays some of the fee, and the individual pays some of the fee. It’s just not on that students are paying almost all of the fee for some degrees.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: In the last few days, I have seen a few people saying things like, we need to return to the days of free degrees. Is that ever going to happen?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it is for a very good reason. When we had, in inverted commas, free degrees – they were never free. The taxpayer paid for them. A very small proportion of the population went to university. We’re talking single digits proportions. Now, it’s about 40 per cent of the young population, people who are fairly young. And that’s just really fired our development as a country. You’ve got to work out how to pay for education, and if it’s paid for solely through the taxpayer, you just can’t afford to educate a large number of people. Now we have a system that balances the contribution of the student and the taxpayer. We’ve been able to democratise and open up universities to a hugely larger number of people – that’s been really good for the country. We have a good scheme. I completely understand why students are concerned about cost of living. But the one thing they don’t need to worry about this week, they see that inflation figure and they think, “Oh my God, I’ve got to pay more now” … you don’t have to pay more now. It does mean your debt gets longer. The repayment period gets longer and ultimately bigger, but it’s not something that’s dipping into your pocket right this minute.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: You are on ABC Radio Queensland. I’m Susan Graham-Ryan, and I’m speaking with Catriona Jackson who’s the chief executive of Universities Australia. She’s in Townsville today for the investiture ceremony for JCU’s new Chancellor, Ngiare Brown, the first Indigenous person and female to hold the role of Chancellor at a tertiary institution in Queensland. It’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?
CATRIONA JACKSON: This will be an absolutely joyous ceremony, and I’m so pleased to be able to get up there. Seeing a woman of the calibre of Ngiare Brown being installed as Chancellor is something that the whole country should celebrate. I mean, such an extraordinary woman. Such an incredible record of achievement in her life already. Seeing her in that really important role of Chancellor, succeeding a very distinguished Chancellor, Bill Tweddell, as well. Really, really pleased to be able to be there. This means something for the university, for James Cook University, but it also means something, I think, for Queensland, really looking up to a really high achiever in Ngiare Brown. But also, I think it means something for the country in the current discussions we’re having. Also, very pleased to be able to attend the Mabo Lecture being delivered by Tom Calma this afternoon as well.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Do you think that her First Nation’s history and her being a female means that it carries a little bit more weight in terms of the example perhaps next generations are seeing a Chancellor and somebody in such an esteemed role?
CATRIONA JACKSON: What do people say, you can’t be what you can’t see. Indigenous kids all over the country and young women of any background will look up and see, Ngiare Brown, and think, I can be that. I can do that. She’s also such an incredibly engaging person. A real person that people feel heard by and seen by, that I think it just gives an enormously good example for a huge range of people. No pressure, Ngiare.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: No pressure at all. And so, you did say that you celebrated the Maroons game last night. Are you backing up for the female game tonight?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I’ll see how I’m going. I’ve got to absolutely honest, I’m more of an AFL person being from down at the bottom of the country. But it was a great game and great to see the win, and the Maroons are the team that my family, some of whom come from New South Wales, support. It’s not always popular down where we come from. But certainly, I think one of the things that has really changed in recent years is the development of women’s sport. One of my kids plays AFLW, and it’s just a joy to see women absolutely in there being just as tough, and just as brilliant as the blokes.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Sure is. And well, hopefully, you’ll enjoy your time in North Queensland. We’ve put on some lovely weather for you.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Absolutely.
SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Thank you very much for your time. That’s Catriona Jackson, the Chief Executive of Universities Australia, in town, of course, for the investiture ceremony for JCU’s new Chancellor.