Nov 9

HECS/HELP in Australia: Who is thinking about it?

Category: australia,university

The other day I visited a site that may not always be visited by many uni students, I went to the site of the Reserve Bank of Australia. The RBA is the institution in Australia that sets our cash interest rate which impacts on various items, notably the cash lending rate (e.g. the rate that banks charge you interest on their loans) which is typically a few percentage points higher than the policy interest rate. Its not quite the same and banks whilst always increasing the interest rate haven’t necessarily been reducing the interest rate as well. But todays gripe isn’t about the banks lack of morals when it comes to money – its about the other item that appears on the RBA’s home page: the inflation rate, or “CPI”.

For those playing at home who aren’t familiar with HECS/HELP, heres a quick primer on how it works. Once upon a time university education in Australia was free, surprising but true. This was a long time ago, about the same time as the present set of politicians were getting educated. And then it progressed to be that students wouldn’t get free education but they would be given a loan interest free that would get paid back to the government based on their tax return. This effectively meant that above a certain point you got taxed at a higher rate and that went towards paying your debt. Nifty, not ideal but not entirely horrible. The Howard Government in part of its many University related reforms decided that they would charge interest on this loan, using CPI to index it. When this was introduced it didn’t sound too bad. CPI was relatively low, 2% to 3%, and the cash interest rate was comparatively high, 6% to 7+%. So it didn’t seem to bad.

Fast forward to now and we’ve hit an economic crisis. Inflation is now 5% and the cash interest rate is at 5.25%. Keep in mind that banks are at present loaning at around the 8% mark up to 9%. It would in fact be interesting to see if the CPI retained its position and the interest lowered even further making CPI higher than the cash lending rate, but that much is pure speculation. However why does this matter?

Well whilst the Student Guild’s are bleating in pleasure that the Labor government is going to give them back their cash cow so that they can spend it on useless things again. Now I have nothing against the employees of said Unions/Guilds, my sister is in fact one and the people who work at my uni refect are also awesome, they just don’t offer me anything valuable. Take for example a bottle of coke, that is 20 cents cheaper out of the vending machine up the hall a little bit from the refect than it is to purchase from the refect. The vending machine itself is 10 cents more expensive than driving down the road a little bit to the bakery and considerably more expensive than buying it from the local supermarket. Part of this I can understand, but when I was a member of the union forcibly and had to pay $40 per subject (comparatively not too bad) the fact that I then have to pay for food that isn’t competitive is a bit of a blow. Keeping in mind that at my university the Guild has manage to remove any external provider and is the sole provider of sustenance on campus controlling the two coffee shops (one under the library and another near the book shop), having a club facility (coffee, alcohol at night, food during the day) and the main refect – after all of this it is still more expensive. Vending machines are a bit more complicated but seem to strangely compete with the Guild which leads me to wonder who exactly controls them. But I digress, whilst they bleat about wanting money and how they won’t squander it (some fees were as high as $600), the Government is also talking about the ability to defer this extra fee to HECS/HELP as well and nobody seems to care that the interest rate on said loan is in fact increasing.

It proves perhaps most to me about how pointless and useless the union system is that they make so much noise about getting money from the universities and not about ensuring the good of their potential members. My Guild didn’t act in my behalf and provided no tangible service which meant that I had no issues leaving them. Turned out that the university ended up propping them up anyway, so they didn’t lose much but at the end of the day they were next to useless. What I found most interesting was that when voluntary student unionism was being introduced they complained that the sports fields would be overgrown and unrulely. Funnily enough I felt that the university was an academic location and not a sporting facility so if the grass grew a little too long on a sports field then so be it. And in this single moment it encapsulates all that was wrong about the Guild.

I keep going off track here, but my problem is of course the fact that the Student Unions don’t do a lot to support their students and expect so much of them. I’ve heard nothing about the fact that CPI has doubled and thus the loan’s interest rate has also increased.

Perhaps nobody has realised what is happening yet because they haven’t looked at their tax yet or seen the increase in their interest. Perhaps next year they will see it and then there will be some noise, though I doubt. It’d be nice to at least go back to the last iteration where the government sponsored the education of its people and they had to slowly pay it back with no interest incurred. Perhaps I’m complaining about nothing, but wouldn’t you be worried if the loan you signed up for had doubled its rate and the prospect of getting a job was drastically reduced?

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