‘Three in four’ Australians concerned about mounting student debt

Surveys suggest concern about student borrowing transcends age and political divides

July 12, 2023
Concerned woman signs document
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Three in four Australians are concerned about escalating student debt, with a similar proportion worried that the government’s share of university funding is declining on a per-student basis, a new survey suggests.

Polling on higher education funding trends has unearthed public disquiet across the age and political spectra. Two-thirds of respondents believe that university education has become too expensive, with three-quarters either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about graduate debt.

Political orientation influenced responses to some degree, with conservative voters about 10 percentage points less likely to express alarm about such matters than Labor or Greens supporters. But uneasiness about student debt was not limited to those personally affected, with respondents in their fifties professing most concern.

The results from the survey of around 1,000 people, conducted for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), suggest that tuition costs are gaining political prominence as parents worry about the university debts accumulated by their adult children.

Report author Eliza Littleton, an economist with the Australia Institute thinktank, says the increase in average student debt had outpaced mortgage growth. “Australians are paying attention to the challenges facing higher education,” she writes.

Her research found that students had shouldered a progressively higher share of higher education costs, with the proportion of funding covered by direct federal grants declining from 57 per cent in 1995 to 33 per cent in 2019.

Putting aside the government’s costs in bankrolling the student loans scheme, federal higher education funding had fallen from 0.9 per cent of gross domestic product in 1995 to 0.6 per cent by 2021 – the equivalent of A$6.5 billion (£3.4 billion) in “forgone funding”, the report claims.

NTEU president Alison Barnes said the research had unearthed “palpable concern” across the community. “Universities have been like a frog slowly boiling in water since the 1990s,” she said.

“Whether it’s funding cuts, insecure work, student debt or increasing class sizes, it’s patently clear from this polling there are high levels of concern about this decades-long trajectory. With the Universities Accord process ongoing, this is a stark picture of what the federal government and review panel need to address.”

Fifty-six per cent of the survey respondents expressed concern at the proportion of university staff on short-term contracts, and 69 per cent were worried about large class sizes. Seventy-nine per cent said vice-chancellors should not be better paid than the prime minister.

Polling commissioned by the Australian Greens has also found widespread uneasiness about student debt, with 64 per cent of the 1,000 respondents expressing concern. The proportion was highest among young respondents, Greens voters, current debtors and people who understood the workings of the student loan system.

Sixty-eight per cent of respondents said student debts were too high and 74 per cent said repayments should not extend longer than a decade. Fifty-nine per cent said tuition should be free and 40 per cent said all existing debts should be cancelled.

Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi said education should “lift people up, not shackle them with a debt sentence. Young people are clearly worried about owing an ever-expanding student debt at a time when the cost of living is biting.”


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