After students took to the streets on Wednesday to protest against the deregulation of university fees, Education Minister Christopher Pyne told Alan Jones on 2GB yesterday that they “should be buying a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates and visiting a home near them where they know someone hasn’t been to university, knocking on the front door and saying, ‘thank you very much for paying for my education'”.

The minister was defending the government’s plan to completely deregulate university fees from 2016; Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he can’t guarantee that fees won’t double for many courses.

Perhaps Pyne should head down to the florist as well, considering he gained his bachelor of laws from the University of Adelaide in 1988 for free, a degree that now costs $40,300.

According to a Crikey investigation, most of Tony Abbott’s cabinet should also be thanking the taxpayer for their higher education, completing their degrees between 1974 and 1988, the golden years of free higher education. University fees were abolished by prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1974 in order to increase the number of people getting a tertiary education. Courses had previously been funded by fees or a fixed number of scholarships under the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme.

Prime minister Bob Hawke reintroduced university fees under the Higher Education Contributions Scheme in 1989, meaning that Treasurer Joe Hockey paid for two years of bachelor of arts and laws from the University of Sydney, with two years paid by the taxpayer. The five-year course now costs $7453 a year, meaning Hockey would be up for $37,265 for the full degree.

The HECS system, designed by economist Bruce Chapman, was intended to continue access to higher education without the ballooning costs of free higher education. In the original system, students paid a flat fee of $1800, which could be repaid later through taxes, while the Commonwealth picked up the remainder of the bill. HECS was adjusted by a new Howard government in 1996, with fees rising and a new tiered system introduced to reflect the value of different degrees. Now students contribute 40% of their course costs through HECS, while the government pays the other 60%.

Before the Prime Minister was a Rhodes scholar, he completed a bachelor of economics and laws at the University of Sydney in 1981. If Tony Abbott started now, he’d finish with a HECS debt of $49,550. Like Christopher Pyne, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop completed a bachelor of laws at Adelaide University, graduating in 1979. Attorney-General George Brandis also got a free education, graduating with a bachelor of arts and laws at the University of Queensland, a course that costs current students $35,084.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull paid one year of fees before 1974, graduating with a bachelor of arts and laws from the University of Sydney in 1978. As a current student, his debt would be $29,812 (for four years of a five-year course). Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce paid one year of his bachelor of commerce at the University of New England after HECS was introduced, a course that now costs $10,080 annually.

It’s not just government frontbenchers who should be buying flowers for taxpayers; while the Labor Party cut $900 million from universities in an efficiency dividend last year, many on the opposition frontbench also benefited from a free education. Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten studied for a bachelor of arts and laws at Monash University, followed by a master’s degree of business administration at the University of Melbourne. The double degree at Monash now costs students $41,750, but Shorten studied most of his degree under the HECS system after 1989, graduating in 1992.

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Penny Wong started to pay HECS partway through her bachelor of arts and law at the University of Adelaide, owing just one year of the course, worth $10,075. Labor’s higher education spokesman, Senator Kim Carr, graduated from his undergraduate degree in 1977, his diploma of education in 1978 and a master’s degree in arts from the University of Melbourne in 1984, meaning as a current student his debt would be more than $70,000.

Opposition transport spokesman Anthony Albanese completed a free bachelor of economics at the University of Sydney, a qualification that now leaves students with a debt of $28,326. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen completed his degree after HECS was introduced, as did Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus is one of many parliamentarians with a combined bachelor of arts and laws, graduating from the University of Melbourne without paying any fees. The combined degree is no longer available, with Melbourne Uni students now completing an arts degree followed by the juris doctor, totalling $132,948 for both courses (although for this cost current graduates leave with a higher post-graduate qualification). Opposition defence spokesman Stephen Conroy also benefited from a free education, studying a bachelor of economics from the Australian National University.

Unlike many of her colleagues in the major parties, Greens leader Christine Milne studied most of her tertiary education before the abolition of fees, completing the honours year of her bachelor of arts in 1974 at the University of Tasmania.

Fewer ALP frontbenchers benefited from Whitlam’s abolition of fees, but this is mainly because the cabinet on the Left side of politics are, on average, younger than their counterparts on the other side of the House. Crikey hopes you’ve all got enough vases for the flowers about to come your way …