A fair go for the bush: Leongatha Secondary college students Naomi Cantwell, Anna McCracken, Rebecca Dowthwaite, Bree Kane and Genevieve Scholte are angry that proposed changes to higher education may disadvantage students from regional and remote areas.
By Liam Charles
SOUTH Gippsland students fear that proposed changes to higher education may spell disaster for their dreams of obtaining a university education.
Last Thursday, Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, introduced his controversial reform bill into the Parliament, with Labor and the Greens threatening to vote against it.
As part of the changes, universities will be able to set their own fees, Commonwealth supported places will be slashed by 20 per cent and interest on HELP loans will be indexed by the 10 year Treasury bond rate.
Independent modelling by Professor Bruce Chapman, the architect of the current Higher Education Contribution Scheme, suggests that a low income graduate with a starting debt of $60,000 would be faced with a debt of $105,000 if real interest rates are applied, as many take time out of the workforce.
This is compared to only $70,000 for high-income graduates, with the same debt.
These far-reaching proposals have many Year 12 students at Leongatha Secondary College extremely worried about their future, especially the female cohort, who are expected to be hit the hardest under Professor Chapman’s modelling.
Rebecca Dowthwaite, who hopes to study a Bachelor of Applied Science (Medical Radiations) at RMIT in 2015, says regional students are already disadvantaged, as they are forced to expend large sums on relocation to city and metropolitan areas.
“At the moment I’m thinking that I might not even be able to go if I don’t get a scholarship. The living costs alone are crazy. All of the colleges at the University of Melbourne are almost $25,000 a year.
“Higher course fees and changing the interest rate is just another burden for country kids,” Ms Dowthwaite said.
One of her peers, Naomi Cantwell, says Mr Pyne has not considered the full ramifications of his changes on those who decide to transfer degrees once they are at university.
“I think it’s tough because we need enough rope to find out what we want to do. Because if we get into a course, get a year into it, and find out we absolutely hate it, you may not have the option of switching under a system with skyrocketing course fees,” she said.
Ms Cantwell is also nervous about paying back a US-style debt if the bill is passed in the Senate, in an economy with 15 per cent youth unemployment.
“There are so many more people graduating than jobs available. You no longer have the stability of knowing you will be able to repay your debt.”
Year 12 coordinator at Leongatha Secondary College, David McGillivray, believes fairness, a fundamental tenet of the education system, has been ripped from underneath his students.
“I know we are not living in the most generous of times, economically, but I think there always has to be a balance. The kids are our future and we need to look after them.
“What they want to do right now is to educate themselves. The changes will make that opportunity more difficult,” Mr McGillivray said.
Member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent, says he has raised some of the concerns of regional students with his Federal colleague, but the party room still supports the essence of the reforms, chiefly deregulation.
“I have raised the issue of regional universities directly with Minister for Education Christopher Pyne.
“The Minister is considering my concerns,” Mr Broadbent told the Sentinel-Times.
For students like Rebecca Dowthwaite, university may soon become an exclusive playground for the wealthy, if the legislation is not modified.
“University is just going to be for rich Melbourne kids and that’s it. No one else is going to able to afford to do it,” Ms Dowthwaite said.