According to analysis by the non-aligned National Foundation for Australian Women, the 2014 federal budget “poses an unacceptable burden on young women simply because of their biology”.
Some of the most immediate and long term negative effects for women are in higher education. We know that people who earn the least will pay the most. We know that women are earning 17% less than men doing the same job. And we know that the working life of many women will be interrupted by raising young children.
With these budget changes, the Abbott Government seeks to undo real advances in equality of opportunity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given there are as many women in cabinet as we had in 1975.
Imagine this. Two students go to university at the same time. Both are charged the same for their degree. Both students graduate together, but one student is able to pay the debt more quickly than the other. The second graduate will have to pay many thousands more simply because she takes longer to pay off the debt as she earns less over time or takes time out to have a family. Under Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s changes, from 2016 universities will be able to charge what they like. In many cases this could mean fees will double.
More critical is the effect of compound interest. At present students pay the inflation rate on their Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECC) debts. Currently this sits at about 2.9%. Under the budget changes, students will be charged the fluctuating 10-year government bond rate. This sits at 3.8% now, but could go as high as 6%, which would effectively double or triple repayments.
Pyne has a gender blind spot. He has not thought through the real-world implications of his plan.
I am already hearing from young women who are deciding against demanding degrees like medicine because of concern about the accumulative debt load. Others, drawn to enrolling in what’s referred to as the ‘caring professions’ are thinking again because their assumed future wage won’t help them pay off their degrees fast enough.
In fielding comment on this issue, ABC Radio National heard from former university student Bronwyn Mitchell. “I live modestly and make ends meet, and as a single woman I’m finally able to afford renting on my own – just. But if the Abbott government succeeds in pushing through these changes to HECS, I will potentially never own property or be able to afford children. And unless I retrain in a different field I will probably never substantially increase my income.”
And this is an issue uniting women of all ages. It’s worrying grandparents no end; mature-aged people who have invested a lot in the lives of granddaughters, in the hope they flourish and benefit from opportunities that were much scarcer for women of past generations. Grandparents Victoria says Baby Boomer grandparents (the post-war generation whose members have begun to enter the older age group, 65 years and over, and will continue to increase its relative size) recognise, to their dismay, that they may be the first and last generation to have free tertiary education. As Grandparents Victoria Director Anne McLeish explained to me, over 65s are coming to realise “that the opportunities they had may be closing up. Our concerns are raw. Even getting our grandkids access to needs-based education funding and help like the SchoolKids Bonus are drying up.”
The budget measures may encourage more parents and grandparents to offer help to whack down their children’s HECS debts quicker, or it will delay or discourage women from having children in order to pay their debts down more speedily. What a dilemma for families to face at a time when older Australians have to pay more for their retirement.
The architect of HECS, Bruce Chapman, and a number of vice chancellors have argued that the loan repayments will hurt women and low income people more than high income earners and should be removed from the higher education package or altered. While claiming to be open to compromise, Minister Pyne still has his head in the sand.
He has rebuffed concerns by suggesting that women do teaching and nursing while men do law and dentistry. Explaining how his package fits into some perceived natural order of higher education, he told the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson last week, “I don’t accept [Chapman’s arguments] because what will happen at universities is that vice chancellors and their leadership teams will know that they should not charge and will not charge higher fees for courses which are typically going to be studied by people who’ll be nurses and teachers and therefore not earn high incomes over a period of time. Now, women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn, and vice chancellors in framing their fees, their fee structure, will take that into account. Therefore the debts of teachers and nurses will be lower than the debts, for example, of lawyers and dentists.”
How out of touch can he be? Women now account for 60% of all graduates in law and dentistry.
The budget measures add to real world structural biases that already exist in the workplace as damning research on pregnancy-related discrimination by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner recently confirmed. Women who worked hard to get tertiary study may well find themselves forced to leave work or simply stay out longer. Career women thinking of advancing their qualifications or changing careers will also be forced to think again.
This Government says debt is bad but apparently student debt is quite acceptable. Labor is determined to keep the pressure up because we know that in a fair society a degree shouldn’t be a debt sentence and one disproportionately felt by women.