At the beginning of 1972 I had a temporary job in the fees office at the University of Sydney. It was, in those pre-computer days, pretty deadly work.

The forms for incoming students were of thick white cardboard. Part of my job was to tie them up in bundles, and to check the numbers to ensure that the right amount of money was paid. Do that long enough and you remember the sum: in 1972, a full-fee paying student at the University of Sydney paid $531 in fees. A student on a Teachers’ College Scholarship paid zero fees.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

That was the year I had my first real job. Within months, I was appointed a lowly Curatorial Assistant at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, at a salary of $4500 per annum. Of course, I could have done better by going to Canberra as an Administrative Trainee, but in 1972 a male honours graduate was paid $5500, while a woman was paid less. The Art Gallery of New South Wales paid poorly, but in its professional division there was no discrimination against women.

The value of money is of course not constant, and it’s hard to work out exactly what 1972’s $531 would mean in today’s money. Fortunately the Reserve Bank has a nifty calculator that tells how a particular ‘basket of goods’ has changed in value. According to this, a ‘basket of goods’ that cost $531 in March 1972 would cost $4122.09 in December 2005.

Of course for most of the full-time students at the University of Sydney in 1972, the figure of $531 was hypothetical. The Government, through Commonwealth Scholarships, paid their fees. And as long as they kept on passing, the Government kept on paying. Those who were prepared to teach not only had free university but were also paid the equivalent of an apprentice’s wage so they could live in modest comfort and not be a burden on their family. The living away from home allowance for students on Commonwealth Scholarships was not only more generous than today’s Centrelink payment, but students were also spared the ritual hounding and unreasonable delays in payment that now contribute so much to undergraduate stress.

Fast forward to 2006. The ‘Commonwealth Supported Places’ (the official pseudonym for university places funded by HECS) have moved from a flat fee of $1800 in 1989, when the Hawke Government first introduced the scheme, to represent yet another piece of magical social engineering where different courses attract different fees, not based on their cost but on that crudest of measures, what the market will bear.

At the University of Sydney teachers and nurses (who were once actually paid to learn) are now charged $3920 per annum. Students in the humanities, social sciences, arts etc, are charged $4899. The sciences, economics and engineering come in at $6979. Medicine, dentistry, vet science and law are charged $8170 almost twice as much as a full-fee paying student in 1972. And while universities might wring their hands at the burden of high fees on students, their accountants are quietly pleased. The steady stream of cash is finally beginning to claw back the damage caused by the Howard budget cuts of 1996.

Other than providing more evidence for the way this current generation of students has been betrayed by their government, what do these high fees mean? Those students who have to pay a small fortune for their degree will have to recoup the cost somehow (I dread even thinking of the $200,000 medical degrees that are about to be instituted). Unless our newly minted doctors jump on a plane for a stint with Medécins Sans Frontières, or some other destination away from the reach of the ATO and never return, altruism will not be an option how can someone who can’t afford to buy a house until they are well into their 40s think of esoteric notions like a social objective when setting fees for their patients?

The other problem lies in the perversion of choices. When fees are so high, it is only a very brave (or wealthy, or culturally aware) person who will enroll in a degree without an automatic high-earning career path. Going into debt for something as fugitive as personal intellectual growth is not a part of traditional working class or immigrant culture. No wonder business studies and marketing are flourishing, while philosophy (at the very core of intellectual life) struggles to get the numbers.

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