Women in science could be the biggest victims of the Coalition Government’s plans to deregulate the university sector, with new modelling showing substantial increases in the long-term debt of women graduating with science degrees.
The new figures — produced by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, in conjunction with news website The Conversation – show female science graduates would end up paying $45,000 more for their degrees, even if the actual cost of degrees did not substantially increase.
NATSEM principle research fellow Ben Phillips told New Matilda that linking the interest on HECs repayments to the bond rate would disproportionately impact women.
“Women tend to have lower incomes so when they graduate, they start with a little less, and as they progress into their late 20s and 30s they’re more likely to have time away from work or to go part time,” Phillips said.
“That means there’s quite a few years where they’re not likely to be paying much HECs at all, so their interest will be compounding through time, so their repayments tend to take a longer period of time.”
According to the calculations, which are based on the cost of degrees at the University of Canberra, this would mean any increases to the base fees charged for a degree would blow out substantially over time.
A fee increase of 50 per cent would increase the debt of female science students by over $125,000, and take an average of over 20 years to repay.
The NATSEM figures show that the proposed changes will have a radically different impact depending on the degree and the gender of the student.
A male student graduating with a business degree would pay between $9,000 and $49,000 more if the changes go ahead, depending on how much the university decides to increase its fees.
Other degrees did not fare so well. While the gender of the student would effect their eventual debt repayments, their degree of choice made an even bigger impact.
“For certain degrees, particularly science, teaching and nursing, there’s likely to be reasonably significant increases in fees under a deregulated structure, and that would mean quite a large increase in the amount of years it will take for students to repay their loans,” Phillips said.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon welcomed the NATSEM analysis, though she described it as “conservative” in a written statement.
“The modelling is further evidence of just how cruel the Coalition’s regressive changes are and is going to make university education simply not possible for a significant number of young people,” Rhiannon said.
“Women, people from disadvantaged backgrounds and low income earners will be the hardest hit by these $5 billion cuts.”
Felicity Nelson, who recently completed her Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science (honours) degree at the University of Sydney, said the government should be encouraging more women to go into science, and that significant barriers of entry into the field already existed, regardless of gender.
“There are a lot of good reasons not to do a science degree,” Nelson said. “Science graduates struggle to find jobs and they aren't paid very well in the jobs they do get.
“I think raising the costs of a degree will definitely discourage future students from studying science.”
Phillips said it was possible that increased degree costs and debt levels would not dissuade young Australians from signing up to degrees such as science, but that in the long-term they would impose a significant “financial impost” onto them after graduation.
NATSEM’s modelling follows a string of similar efforts from organisations such as the Universities Australia, The Greens, the ANU Mathematical Science Institute and the NTEU.
Minister for Education Christopher Pyne has claimed changes to degree repayments will only cost students three to five dollars extra per week, but has been criticised for failing to release the modelling on which those findings are based.
Phillips said Pyne’s calculations appeared too optimistic and failed to take into account likely increases in the bond rate, and therefore the interest students are forced to repay on their debts.
“Their interest rate is fair enough for the here and now, but it’s very unlikely interest rates will stay at record lows in five or 10 years time,” he said.
In response to questions about his own modelling, as well as the impact that deregulation could have on women, Pyne’s office reiterated previous statements.
“In a deregulated environment all higher education providers will have to compete for students,” a spokesperson for Pyne said.
“They will need to carefully consider the price point for their courses and what they offer, because students will have more power than ever to pick and choose the course that is right for them.”
Given that the Coalition’s proposed changes also come with a 20 per cent reduction in Government funding for courses, there will be immense pressure on most universities to increase fees, although some have guaranteed not to do so in the immediate future.
Because it remains unclear how universities would change their fees if caps on degree costs were removed, the NATSEM figures chart a range of possible outcomes, showing the effects that would flow from increasing fees by various amounts.
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