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Should we bring back free tertiary tuition?

Should we bring back free tertiary tuition?

Late last year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced plans to provide one year of fee-free tertiary tuition to all students who finished school from 2017 onwards. This policy, which is part of the government’s wider plan to provide all New Zealanders with three years of free university education by 2024, has no doubt piqued interest in the topic across the other side of the Tasman. 

Fee-free university is no stranger to the Australian education sector. In 1974, the Whitlam Government abolished university fees in the hope that all Australians would have access to tertiary study on the basis of merit rather than wealth. As Year 12 completion rates increased and the pool of prospective tertiary students began to grow, providing free university to all Australians loomed as a significant burden on the federal budget. This led to the implementation of the current HECS scheme in 1989, where tertiary education is subsidised by the Government until graduates earn enough money to repay their fees. 

With up to 87 per cent of Australians now completing high school and demand for tertiary education growing like never before, free university seems to be a relic of the past. Budget cuts to the higher education sector has seen an exponential increase in the cost of tertiary study – fee prices have swelled by 7.5 per cent, while the repayment threshold has lowered by $10,000. These rising costs seem to go against the beliefs of many Australians, with a 2017 poll by The Guardian finding that 45 per cent of respondents support the abolishment of university fees. 

As our cross-Tasman neighbours start to implement their revamped higher education policy, let’s look at the pros and cons of following New Zealand’s free tuition lead. 


University access for all 

Abolishing tuition fees would allow students who have previously had restricted access to tertiary study the opportunity to go to university. The elitist reputation of higher education would be erased, encouraging social mobility by welcoming students from diverse areas and social backgrounds into university. The economic barriers that painted university as a domain of the rich, such as high HECS debts and costly upfront payments, would be replaced with the opportunity to undertake further study irrespective of wealth. Re-implementing fee-free tuition would also encourage students to study what they are genuinely interested in, rather than just enrolling in a course that is cost-effective. 

Potential boost to economy 

Many of today’s jobs require a combination of skills and knowledge, both of which are often developed at university. Making higher education fee-free could encourage more people to upskill through tertiary study, enhancing their potential in a job market that is increasingly requiring degrees from prospective candidates. 

Lessens financial burden on a generation of young adults 

It’s no secret that the world has become a more expensive place since university fees were last abolished. Today’s tertiary students face a number of potential financial burdens that weren’t experienced by past generations, such as inflated house prices and cuts to penalty rates. Throw in an increase in university fees and lower repayment thresholds, and many Australians may simply be priced out of attending university. Offering free tertiary education would combat this issue, allowing students to undertake further study without facing a huge financial burden. 


Covering the cost could fall onto the average Australian 

Let’s face it – funding tertiary education for all Australians is never going to be a cheap task. When university fees were first abolished in the 1970s, the cost of covering free tuition began to emerge as a significant burden on the federal budget. While many Australians support a move towards the re-implementation of fee-free university, the cost of this policy must be absorbed somewhere. Increasing taxes on the wealthiest members of society, closing corporate tax loopholes and decreasing exorbitant spending in other sectors have emerged as viable options, yet it is also likely that the average taxpayer could be hit with the extra costs. 

Too many graduates

When the Whitlam Government introduced free university in the 1970s, many working-class Australians hadn’t finished high school and hence didn’t need a tertiary qualification. It’s a different story today – over 87 per cent of Australians successfully attained their Year 12 certificate in 2017, resulting in a higher demand for university places. Providing free-for-all tertiary education could see this demand outweighing supply, potentially flooding the job market with similarly qualified graduates who may struggle to find meaningful employment post-university. The devaluing of degrees could also be an issue, as a bachelor degree would lose its prestige if everyone held one. Graduates could be forced to return to university for postgraduate study (which isn’t free) in order to gain the edge over other job candidates.   

Potential drop in value of tertiary education 

The financial motivation that comes with paying for university encourages students to get the most out of their education. It’s probably safe to say that many students would feel more at ease to skip classes, miss submission dates and not make full use of university resources if there weren’t any financial repercussions. This lapse in student conscientiousness could translate to decreased graduation rates, as well as the misallocation of vital resources that could be better utilised in other areas of the university. 


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