Education Not Always A Path Out of Poverty


In the latest budget, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have told people like me to ‘earn or learn’.

It’s a pretty convenient position for government, considering that the budget has sent the cost of learning through the roof, and the wages we’ll eventually earn to pay them back are likely to be worth far less in the future, set against the size of the student debt we will incur.

My questions to Mr Hockey and Mr Abbott are these: What would you do if you were under 30 and you couldn’t get a job? Maybe you would be supported by your parents – if you were lucky enough to have parents that could do so?

If your parents couldn’t support you, maybe you’d be homeless. Maybe you would be the kind of person who could sell drugs or stolen goods to get by?

Or maybe you’d enrol in an educational course so that you could get Youth Allowance, Austudy or Abstudy – some actual money to live on? 

I know that’s what I would do.

But I also know that straight after finishing high school, I was over study. I wasn’t interested in turning up to class, worrying about exams after 13 years of doing just that, especially after making it through the mother of all teenage stresses, the HSC.

It was two years before I felt serious about university study, and I spent my eighteenth and nineteenth years on Youth Allowance, plus a little money from a casual job, living at home.

But today’s under 30s won’t have that luxury from 2015. If they can’t get a job, they’ll be given two choices: stay unemployed and get no money; or start studying, and get access to a welfare payment. Lean as they are, it will be the only alternative to nothing.

Once a person chooses to study, what else do they get? The beginning of an enormous higher education debt of course – unless, again, their parents are wealthy enough to pay the fees up front, or perhaps they get a scholarship like Frances Abbott, the Prime Minister’s daughter did.

As soon as you earn a wage of $50,000 or more (not a remarkable figure in this day and age) the government expects to be paid back those fees, not just in full, but with significant interest added, which will have accrued over the years of its life.

So while some young people may enroll in Higher Education now just to get Youth Allowance, they’ll pay back much more than that in years to come.

Many of them will be under 30s who already have a degree, but sign up for yet another, simply because they can’t find a job (Tasmania,  for example, has the highest rate of unemployment in the country).

Joe Hockey has continually justified the raise in fees by saying that those with a degree will earn “a million dollars more” over the course of their career than those without one. But with many young people doing multiple degrees. higher education will hardly be an advantage in the future. And “a million dollars more” is an arbitrary figure worth much less over time, courtesy of inflation.

This style of policy will see universities fill with students who don’t want to be there; courses filled with students who simply the need benefit of a social safety net, something their parents enjoyed but that has been denied them.

Young people will enroll in study if it’s the only thing they can do to avoid being penniless and homeless.  But that won’t guarantee them a successful education or career. And it might rob other young other young people of exactly those things.

As any past university student knows, it doesn’t matter if you fail a subject, you still have to pay for it. And it won’t matter to the government’s bank account either whether you enrolled in a course you weren’t really committed to completing or passing. You’ll still have to pay them back.

The government has an obvious interest in turning a blind eye to this situation, because regardless of who enrolls, they still get the money from the fees. They stand to collect a lot more revenue with increased interest on the increased prices of study.

Study isn’t the right choice for all young people – some are better off with on-the-job learning.

In addition, the number of Aboriginal Australians who attend university is far below the rest of us. So guess who drew the short straw again for education in this year’s budget? 

This is a disappointing outcome given that Tony Abbott is the self-described Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

The situation is far too convenient for the government. It’s very obvious who comes out ahead in this new system. And it certainly isn’t the poorest or youngest in our nation.

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