A Broad Education

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Why the 2014/15 budget, could cost Australian students their education. 

The 2014 Commission of Audit proposes to lower the income threshold for repaying HECS-HELP from its current point at $52,000 to $33, 250. In addition, graduates currently pay 41% of their loan yet Education Minister Christopher Pyne is proposing to raise this to 55% of their debt. With an average debt following a four year bachelor’s degree ranging from $18,000 to $30,000 this means, those graduates could potentially begin paying that off straight after throwing their caps in the air, with a part-time minimum wage job. Alternatively, they could be forced to continue studying to gain more profitable qualifications in order to have a higher standard of living while repaying fees, straight out of university. While this may not be an an immediate crippling debt it is enough of an increase that could deter some people away from any tertiary education at all to avoid economic hardships after graduation. These changes to HECS-HELP repayments will reduce a student’s options during and following tertiary education.

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When I started university I was passionate about my course (BA, psychology). At the uni tav other psych majors and I would happily discuss what we had learnt; I was determined to apply for post grad study and become a registered Clinical Psychologist. I also took a number of arts units like linguistics, philosophy, and art history just because I could – they were interesting to me at the time. Some time during third year, when I realised I had been in formal education for sixteen years and about the same time my itchy travelling feet kicked in, I decided I wasn’t so motivated to continue studying for the time being. Almost on a whim, two weeks before the cut off date I applied to go on exchange in North America for my last semester of uni. I also applied for a UK Working Visa (like my sister and two of my cousins before me) and that was that. I was ready for the world outside of uni.

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If I was faced with an increased HECS-HELP repayment scheme on the unskilled job I was I likely to obtain when I returned from the UK, perhaps I wouldn’t have considered the exchange program as it added another semester and additional fees to my loan. Perhaps I would have continued studying psychology despite losing interest in the subject as a career. Giving young adults the freedom to choose their paths and the opportunity for a wider, informal education unburdened by immediate debt repayments benefits society as a whole. We should be encouraging our students to broaden their experiences and become a happy society,  which would be lost if the emphasis for tertiary education is placed on narrowed learning purely for financial gain. We need a society filled alternative views, a creative approach to life, with people that can think outside the factory issued, brown cardboard box. In order to achieve this our students need to break away from their assembly line manufacturing and see and learn from the rest of the world.

On top of learning how to diagnose depression, how to analyse an abstract performance art piece relating it back to an individual’s struggle in society and perhaps most importantly, how to write a three thousand word assignment the night before its due and still receive decent marks, I consider the things I learnt while travelling just as important as my bachelor’s degree. While on exchange in central Illinois, surrounded by frat houses and corn fields, as a twenty year old who felt trapped in Perth, the most isolated city in the world, I discovered that not everywhere is better than my home town. After graduating I travelled around North America on my own, something I think everyone should try at least once; the sense of independence, push to meet new people and try new things outside your comfort zone is unprecedented when travelling with friends. This trip taught me that a city is what you make of it and the people you spend time with are just as important, if not more than what a city has to offer.

  'Her' side of the story

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Not finished with travelling yet, I started saving up to live in Berlin for the summer. A luxury I was able to afford as I was earning less that the threshold for repayments on my debt which now stood at $20, 000. With Perth’s high cost of living (7% higher than Sydney), repaying student loans on a low paying job and saving up for overseas travel would not be possible for many graduates.

Living in Berlin, a city created by artists for artists was an experience I can only assume would never happen in Perth with our mining booms and focus on capital gain. I returned to London in Autumn to use the rest of my Working Visa and I loved that everyone in London was from somewhere else, effectively making us all orphans together. I made friends with people from all over the UK and Europe and absorbed as much of the fractions of their cultures they shared with me. Something I never could have discovered in my tiny, sheltered Perth bubble.

I have since returned to Perth and embraced this beautiful, growing city with open arms. My time overseas, living in three different countries and meeting hundreds of people who have touched my life has become a huge part of who I am today. And while I plan to stay in Perth for a while, I’m even ready to study again and give it my all, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. Not only do I savour all the positive times like watching the sunrise from my balcony in Berlin, or cycling to Stonehenge in the rain with my best friend, but also all the time when I did a runner on a restaurant in New Orleans and faced the blood chilling fact that I had run out of money, and even when I was locked out of my friend’s apartment in Chicago and spent the night talking to a homeless man in a Greyhound bus station. I can only hope that all students in my situation (and not just those from privileged upbringings) have the freedom from immediate debt repayments to also have the opportunity for a broad education. I guess we’ll find out tonight.


Sian Sugars is a FLINT contributor, based in Perth, Australia.