Mortgage-scale student debt on the rise in Australia

Government says new student debt figures strengthen the case for change

May 5, 2018
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The number of Australians with enormous student debts has increased by almost 30 per cent in a year, adding impetus to the government’s drive to rein in lending.

The total amount of outstanding student debt reached A$54 billion (£30 billion) last June, up from less than A$48 billion a year earlier, with more than 14,000 people owing in excess of A$100,000 – up from 11,000 in 2016.

The data, summarised in an Australian Parliamentary Library report, suggest that thousands of graduates are struggling with huge debts. The A$100,000 figure has become a byword for unaffordability, with the government’s opponents using the spectre of “A$100,000 degrees” to overcome its 2014 proposal to deregulate university fees.

While the population of student debtors has risen by 70 per cent this decade, the number with A$100,000-plus debts has multiplied sevenfold.

Under a student loan sustainability bill now before parliament, borrowers will start repaying their debts when their income reaches A$45,000 – down from the current A$55,874 – and will be prevented from accumulating debts of more than A$104,400 for study in most disciplines.

The new report cites estimates that 25 per cent of outstanding debt will never be repaid, although that figure drops to 18 per cent if loans for vocational training are disregarded. Another bill seeks to have the two groups of loans administered separately.

Education minister Simon Birmingham said that Australia had one of the most generous student loan schemes in the world, but it was “designed with the expectation that a small proportion of students wouldn’t be able to repay their loans”.

“With around A$50 billion of outstanding debt and around a quarter not expected to be repaid at the moment, it’s clear the current situation cannot continue,” he said.

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations said that “penalising students for the cost of their education” was a short-sighted response to the problem. “Imposing a loan balance cap does not address the real problems of ballooning tuition fees and graduates’ difficulties finding stable, fairly paid employment,” said national president Natasha Abrahams.

“If the minister is genuinely concerned that some students are unable to pay back their loans, it would be prudent to examine and address the reasons for this rather than devastate opportunity for future students and rip money from lower-earning graduates.”

While student groups bitterly oppose the changes, some university strategists privately hope that they pass parliament, reasoning that, if they are blocked, the government may introduce more onerous changes instead.

Advocates argue that the A$45,000 threshold will not hurt low-income graduates too much, because the repayment rate for those earning under about A$55,000 will only be 1 to 2 per cent of salary. They also say that the impact of the borrowing cap has been softened by an amendment that makes it “replenishable”, with students able to continue borrowing after paying down enough of their debts to keep the outstanding amounts under the cap.

But Ms Abrahams argued against accepting “flawed” changes for fear of incurring “yet another cut”. She said that the government had already made substantial savings by freezing teaching grants late last year.

The sustainability bill passed the House of Representatives in March and has been introduced into the Senate, where it will need the backing of nine of the 11 minor party and independent senators. 

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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