Alternatives to user-pays education

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Marina Cameron

The Liberals' cuts to higher education in the federal budget are part of a worldwide drive by capitalist governments to cut public spending. In other countries the process of winding back free education and pushing the user-pays agenda has been quite similar to that in Australia.

Education in New Zealand was virtually free until the early 1980s, when the Labour government introduced a $1000 flat fee. This rose to $1260 in 1989 and paved the way for the National Party to deregulate fees when it regained government.

Fees are paid up front and now average $2300 per year, but can be up to $18,000. Student financial assistance is means tested, with only 22% of students receiving the allowance in 1995.

In order to meet the costs of fees and living expenses, students have to take out loans provided by the government. This has led to an accumulation of $1.6 billion in student debt. Most students will accrue a debt of $25,000 over three years.

Former students are taxed 10 cents in the dollar more than anyone else until they have paid off their debt.

According to the government's own predictions, 50% of students will not pay back their debt until they are 40 years old. One in five of all women and one in three Maori women will not repay their debt until they are 65.

In Australia, Labor's proposed flat fee (Higher Education Administration Charge) was defeated in the late '80s by a concerted student campaign.

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (a deferred rather than up-front fee) was introduced instead. Now the Liberals are trying to introduce higher HECS and a faster repayment rate. Although HECS is still nominally a deferred fee, the similarities between the debts accrued by students in Australia and New Zealand are striking.

Postgraduate fees were deregulated under Labor; the Liberals are now putting forward a partial deregulation of undergraduate fees. Australian students still have Austudy, although eligibility has been tightened. A supplementary loans scheme was introduced by Labor to top up the meagre allowance. This will now be paid back at the rate of HECS, pushing students further into debt.

Resistance activist Jo Brown told Green Left Weekly, "Countries like New Zealand aren't that much further down the user-pays track than Australia, and Labor and Liberal education policy is clearly aimed at sending us in the direction of full fees and loans to replace Austudy. The only things holding them back now are the campaigns by students and staff against the cuts and strong public sentiment against the erosion of education funding."

An interesting development in New Zealand has been the emergence of a progressive electoral alternative, the Alliance. Its policies include free health care and free education, alongside tax reforms which shift the burden of social expenditure onto companies and the top income brackets.

The Alliance calls for universal student allowances, not means tested, to be paid at the level of the unemployment benefit in 1991, adjusted for inflation. It also has a policy of abolishing the student loans scheme and setting up a government unit to investigate staff-student ratios, wages and working conditions with the aim of ensuring quality education.

In July the Alliance put an "Abolition of Tertiary Fees" bill before parliament.

The bill would have prevented the charging of tuition fees to domestic students, required universities to enrol any person who applied and was capable of undertaking a course, and required the minister to report to parliament if government funding fell short of being able to provide these places.

Although the bill was not passed, it was a useful exercise in challenging the other major parties to take a public stand on education. The Alliance worked with students, staff and concerned members of the community in a campaign in support of the bill.

"There are alternatives to user pays", said Brown. "The NZ Alliance is putting forward ideas which should be the foundation of any education policy. Guaranteed access and universal student allowances are basic demands we should be putting to government here.

"It is very important to formulate and publicise our own alternatives, because the push towards user pays is so strong. We should be calling on opposition parties in the Senate to take these up.

"We should use our own alternatives to illustrate how bad things are now, to expose the narrow interests of government and big business in pushing user pays, and to give an idea of the sort of education system worth fighting for."