Politics

The Greens Want University And TAFE To Be Free Again, And They’ve Got A Plan To Make It Happen

Taking from the fossil fuel industry and giving to students? Sign us up.

Every time the government announces changes to uni fees, someone inevitably points out that once, not that long ago, university fees in Australia were free. And they may yet be free again, because the Greens have just announced a huge new plan aimed at exactly that.

Actually, making education free again is just the beginning. This morning, the Greens announced a new five-point plan to totally revamp higher education in Australia, which they plan on taking to the next federal election. They reckon it’s the biggest investment in higher education in Australian history, and Greens education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi says it’s aimed at helping students, staff, and universities overall.

That’s because there are a few different parts to the plan: the Greens want to remove all fees from undergraduate university and TAFE in Australia, as well as boost university funding by 10 percent per student, helping reduce class sizes and create a more secure work environment for university staff and researchers.

For those of us who already have HECS-HELP debt, the Greens also want to change the repayment threshold so it’s tied to the median wage. Basically, they want to make especially sure that people aren’t having to pay back their uni fees until they’re earning a decent amount of money. For instance, the 2019-20 HELP repayment threshold is currently $45,881 — under the Greens’ proposed changes, that would rise, meaning that you wouldn’t need to start paying back your uni fees until you earn $52,990 or more. This basically just restores the HELP threshold back to what it was before the government slashed it earlier this year, FYI.

The final part of the Greens plan involves boosting Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy payments by $75 per week, as well as making all postgraduate students eligible for Austudy (currently, only some degrees are eligible).

In short, the Greens want to put a tonne of money back into education, and they think it’s pretty obvious why. “For too long, education has been treated as a piggy bank by both the Liberal and Labor parties,” senator Faruqi said.

“As a result, higher education looks more like a business with students as customers, rather than as a way to build skills and knowledge to solve the problems of tomorrow. It’s time to end the debt sentence.”

Where’s The Money Coming From? Oh, Just The Fossil Fuel Industry

I know what you’re thinking: this will be expensive, and you’re right. The Parliamentary Budget Office has costed the plan at approximately $18 billion over four years, and $129.6 billion over ten years.

And where do the Greens plan on finding that kind of money? In the fossil fuel industry, as it turns out (classic Greens). They reckon they can fund the education plan by putting an end to two key perks the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed for way too long now, especially given, y’know, climate change.

The first perk the Greens want to get rid of is fossil fuel subsidies (or FFS, a very apt initialism), where taxpayer funds are essentially being used to prop up the fossil fuel industry. The second thing they want to do is start making offshore gas companies pay a flat 10 percent royalty rate for extracting gas. Currently, many of the biggest offshore gas projects are paying absolutely nothing in royalties or tax.

As Mehreen Faruqi put it, “we need bold and transformational plans that shake up the status quo. Liberal and Labor governments have cut funds to universities and TAFE while giving massive tax handouts to their corporate donors. Australians are sick of being told that they have to go without while corporations evade tax and dictate government policy”.

Free University Sounds Great, But Can They Pull This Off?

As it turns out, the Greens are cautiously optimistic about pulling this off. “The Greens have a long and proud history of putting the big ideas on the table and campaigning hard for them to become a reality so that the other parties have no choice but to adopt them,” Faruqi told Junkee.

“We’ve seen this recently with the Banking Royal Commission and the imminent National Integrity Commission. I am confident that fee-free education is not a question of if, but when.”

“We have universal primary and secondary education. Free public higher education is the missing piece of the puzzle. No one should graduate with a decade of debt ahead of them. Australians have seen the benefits of free education, and we can have them again”.

That last bit is a good point, too — when the Liberals and Labor inevitably trash this plan as an expensive fantasy, remember that quite a few of the people speaking actually went to university when fees were free, just like what the Greens are proposing above. Think about New Zealand, where Jacinda Ardern was successfully elected on the promise of fee-free higher education just last year (she’s already started following through). Australia could be next, if the major parties get on board.


Update 11 December: This story was amended to reflect updated costing figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office. The previous version reported slightly higher costing figures, at $21.8 billion over four years, and $133.4 billion over ten years.