HELP means no Australian student has to pay fees up front. Graduates start to pay only once they are earning over a specified amount and repayment rates are calculated on the basis of earnings, not the size of the debt.
No Australian student is turned away from university because they can’t pay the fees. No graduate faces excessive repayments and no one has to default on a student loan.
This means a proportion of the debt will never be repaid — a deliberate feature.
The level of this doubtful debt, however, is now estimated by the government actuary at $10 billion and questions about its cost to the taxpayer are being raised. While much of the growth in doubtful debt is due to enrolment growth, the share of new loans that is not expected to be repaid is also increasing.
The best safeguard for the continued success of HELP is financial sustainability.
Equity is the basic principle of HELP: those who can afford to pay for higher education should do so. At the moment, the design of the HELP scheme means that some well-off graduates are not required to repay their loans. This is unfair, as it puts more pressure on those graduates who are repaying, including many on relatively modest wages.
In our policy statement Keep it Clever, Universities Australia encourages government to investigate debt recovery options that support the basic equity principles of HELP. Provided that any new arrangements were proportionate, like the earnings threshold, they could make the HELP scheme fairer and more progressive, as well as recovering more of the outstanding debt.
It is important to examine the options carefully, and to seek rigorous estimates of their likely impact. This can ensure higher education is affordable for students as well as taxpayers.
Nobody will benefit if the scheme gets beyond HELP.
Opinion piece by Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson originally published in The Australian on 30 March 2016.