Across the Accords: What the HECS was that?

Students across the country are set to see the education system turned on its head in the coming future. The release of the Australian University Accords comes as a 12-month long review of the university system to create a fairer and more equitable higher education system. The Honourable Jason Clare, Minister for Education says “The Accords will help to drive this change. It will help us build a better and fairer education system where no one is held back, and no one is left behind.” And to give credit where credit is due, I agree. However, as one of Monash’s National Union of Student (NUS) delegates, these accords fall short of supporting students and whilst a 400-page document of recommendations is great, these words mean nothing, unless we start to take action and progress on these recommendations.

The Accords have made huge progress in some areas, such as the recommendation (Recommendation 14) to end ‘placement poverty’ – meaning that  students who are required to accrue onsite training and placements won’t have to worry about their income during those periods. The language provided however doesn’t give a certainty if this amount will be enough to live on. In line with the National Union of Students, I would like to echo calls for the Federal Government to work with tertiary institutions and employers to provide all students on placement with a minimum wage.

Another promising development is the idea of a national student ombudsman.  Picture this – a place where we can raise our concerns and complaints about university matters, knowing there’s someone independent who’s got our backs. Whether it’s about academic mistreatment or any other issue, having this ombudsman could mean fairer outcomes and better support for us students. It’s like having a trusted ally in our corner, making sure our voices are heard and our experiences matter in shaping a more student-friendly university environment.

“HECS is Best” is a phrase commonly used by economic conservatives as a form of upholding the institutionalisation of student debt into our society. Australia stands as one of the most resource-rich countries in the world yet unlike countries like Qatar, our Government makes more money from the collection of student indexed-loans than from the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax. HECS repayments collect 18% more revenue than Fossil Fuel companies. It’s not just ridiculous, when you think about it, our student HECS repayments are subsidising big oil in the midst of a climate crisis. Recommendation 16 asks for the HECS system to be made ‘fairer’ and reverse the Jobs Ready Graduate package (That’s the one that doubled the cost of your non-STEM degree BTW). However this fails to acknowledge that a system that preys on students seeking to improve employability and the pursuit of knowledge whilst strapping them with debt isn’t working. I may not be one of the ‘socialists’ that harass you on campus, but I think I echo the sentiment of many students when I say the HECS system isn’t working. Australia has the resources to make education free for every domestic student. Our sociology classes shouldn’t be used to subsidise Woodside Energy.

Despite some of the challenges we’ve discussed, it’s important to highlight the good stuff happening in our universities. Take for instance the news about more funding potentially coming our way for student unions through SSAF (that $300 payment you make at the start of the year). This means more resources for clubs, events, and support services that make campus life vibrant and enjoyable. It’s like investing in the heart of our student community, giving us more opportunities to connect, grow, and make the most out of our time at university.

While structural reform of how we approach the funding model of tertiary education is still on the agenda for student activists closer to home, most students are facing a cost of living crisis. As a student from a regional background, I know that government payments are a make or break for many. Centrelink’s age of independence still remains stuck at 22, closing the door yet again on low-income and regional students. In our own backyard, only 8.1% of students at Monash come from low socio-economic backgrounds, a statistic that speaks volumes on the work needed to level the playing field. While any financial support that helps students complete their degree is welcomed, this can and must go further – lowering the age of independence ASAP because students can’t wait for a review, students need financial support urgently.

I, of course, understand that whilst many bureaucrats may see this as a huge step forward, for students living through a cost of living crisis, struggles remain. We need action and we need it now.

Campbell Frost

The author Campbell Frost

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