In a speech she gave yesterday, Education Minister Julie Bishop says:
Today for every $1 a student contributes to their education, the Australian Government contributes $3. Students pay 25% of the cost of their fees, the taxpayer picks up 75%.
Her predecessor was fond of that argument too, but repetition does not make it right. Insofar as a defence can be made of it, in 2004 for every $1 HECS charged to Commonwealth-subsidised students about $3 was spent by the Commonwealth, but on all university activities, including research. Money spent on researchers who never step foot inside a classroom is not a contribution to a students’ education, which the Minister’s statement specifies: ‘their education’, ‘their fees’. A government that insists on unbundling university finances when it comes to student unions cannot rebundle to suit a different argument. Moreoever, student contributions were increased in 2005, which will alter the relativities.
Since the Commonwealth now specifies its exact contribution per student and the exact maximum fee payable it is possible to work out the student contribution as a percentage of the total. The lowest percentage – 27.8% for nursing – is higher than the typical percentage claimed by the Minister, and the highest – law at 83.85% – is more than three times as high.
Using data I collated from the funding ‘agreements’ signed between the universities and the Commonwealth, I have calculated the likely weighted average student contribution for 2005 and after enrolments, ie taking into account that some courses are taken by more students than others. This figure is 44%. (‘Likely’, in that I am assuming that the courses taken by 2005 and after students, who mostly pay a 25% premium, closely resemble those taken by pre-2005 students).
However, the government argues that there is doubtful debt associated with HECS lending. Once we adjust for that, the average student contribution comes down to about 38%.
So the government is still picking up most of the cost, but not as large a share as it claims.