Australian women ‘owe more’ on student loans despite earning less

Survey finds females already carry disproportionate debt burden, ahead of fee hikes tipped to make things worse

December 8, 2020
Australian dollars with calculator, pen and magnifier
Source: iStock

Australian women tend to incur higher university debts than their male counterparts although they benefit less financially, according to a study.

A survey of more than 1,000 Australian students and graduates has found that women are almost 50 per cent more likely than men to graduate with student debts in excess of A$30,000 (£16,650), even though they are less likely to command good salaries.

The survey, by investment group Futurity, has been released on the eve of fee changes expected to further disadvantage female students. Women dominate enrolments in society and culture subjects such as behavioural sciences and social studies, which are set to incur the steepest fee hikes.

Student contributions in such courses will more than double from about A$6,800 to A$14,500 a year. While other female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing will receive favourable treatment, with fees almost halving to A$3,700 a year, these courses were relatively cheap to begin with.

The survey found that debt burdens were already carried disproportionately by women. Female respondents proved roughly 60 per cent more likely than men to be carrying tuition fee debts of more than A$20,000 at the time of the survey, and 12 per cent less likely to have paid off their debts completely.

These burdens contributed to a broader picture of disadvantage among female graduates, students and non-completers. Women were 14 per cent less likely than male respondents to report that they owned their homes and 18 per cent more likely to be living in accommodation belonging to landlords or family members.

Forty-two per cent of women said that they earned at least A$60,000 a year – a figure marginally above Australia’s median income – compared with 57 per cent of men. Thirty-nine per cent of women grossed less than A$40,000 a year, compared with 27 per cent of men.

Futurity chief executive Ross Higgins said that women tended to leave university with more debt than their male contemporaries and less capacity to pay it off, particularly if they took career breaks to have children and raise families before returning to work part-time.

“With the cost of a university education exceeding A$50,000 in many instances, it’s essential that people considering a tertiary education understand that debt acquired at university can carry financial and social burdens later in life,” he said.

The survey found that while 64 per cent of respondents were comfortable with their current debt levels, significant minorities felt that their student loans had hampered their aspirations. Men in particular were likely to report that tuition fee debt had undermined their ability to buy homes, start businesses or make investments.

Forty-four per cent of respondents were “negative or neutral” on the question of whether the benefits of their university education outweighed the disadvantages of the debt.

The survey results broadly accord with recently released Australian Taxation Office figures showing that student debts are most likely to fall within the A$20,000-A$40,000 range. But the data also show that about 256,000 people had debt burdens of more than A$50,000 last financial year, up from 244,000 the previous year.

Some 24,500 people owed more than A$100,000, up from 22,500 a year previously. Altogether about 2.9 million Australians owed a combined A$66.4 billion by June this year – a slight decline on the previous year’s figures, after loans for vocational diplomas were separated from the figures.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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