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May 23, 2014

A floral tribute to the federal MPs who got a free ride at uni

Christopher Pyne reckons students should send flowers to taxpayers to say thanks for their education. Freelance journalist Sally Whyte discovers there ought to be a lot of flowers coming from Parliament House.

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 …

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51 comments

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51 thoughts on “A floral tribute to the federal MPs who got a free ride at uni

  1. Ian Roberts

    If it’s true what you’ve written about Pyne’s university education, then he told a bald-faced lie on Q&A last week.

  2. Andrew Greville

    When Bernard Keane first raised this childish argument last week, I let it slide, but now Sally Whyte has made a feature out of it, I can’t sit still.

    Through circumstances beyond my control, I share a similar demographic profile with the Liberal cabinet. So yes, I got a “free ride” at University. Our age group was fortunate in this regard, without question.

    However we bought our first house without a homeowner’s grant. We raised our children without subsidised childcare. Paid parental leave, if available at all, was for four weeks, and for mothers only. The marginal tax rate was 60%, and the 47% rate kicked in at about $19,000. Family Tax Benefit A and B didn’t exist. Our country was shameful in its neglect of indigenous people – barely any money was spent on “closing the gap”. Disability Insurance? Forget it. Interest rates for our first mortgage were likely between 16% and 21%, and unemployment was double digits.

    This probably sounds like a whinge, but it isn’t meant to be. I am incredibly lucky to have been born here, and to have made the most of my free tertiary education. But surely Bernard and Sally are smart enough to realise that all of the things listed above are paid for out of the same pot of money that heavily subsidises university education today. If you want to make tertiary education cheaper, which ones are you prepared to take back to ensure that my generation’s first mortgage rates remain the high water mark?

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    I think this article is a bit misleading. The fees that the Libs are proposing to bring in in future are much higher than those quoted, presumably real terms adjusted from the 70’s. It would be more accurate to look at those higher dollar figures they are expecting people to pay. And perhaps as a demonstration of principle they could now offer to pay for the degrees that they got for free that they think others should now pay for. As to Andrew Greville’s comment, a simple tweak to superannuation concessions for the super rich could make universities free again. If we are really that concerned about budget and funding. But this was never about that. Its about shutting out the average person from university and creating a U.S. style 1%-er economy, and its not over yet.

  4. jmendelssohn

    I think you will find that Malcolm Turnbull had a Commonwealth Scholarship, so paid no fees.

  5. Liberstand

    Yes Sally, it’s ironic. Great article.

  6. ianjohnno

    Bill Shorton has a master’s degree of business administration.
    That begins to explain a few things.

  7. Scott

    Come on Andrew

    No Capital Gains Tax, No Fringe Benefits Tax, No GST…all of which were introduced in 1985 or later.
    Over the years the tax take/GDP has increased from around 22% of GDP during the wonder years of free uni eduction to its present take of around 26%.
    House prices….average 2 times household incomes until the late 80’s when they started their climb to the now 4-5 times. Means smaller loans. Who cares if you have a 16% loan on $50,000…better than a 6% loan on $300,000

    I’m a fan of the uni changes (having paid my HECS upfront as a mature age student, I have increased my earning power quite dramatically) but lets not pretend that the oldies had it easier.

  8. Scott Grant

    Hmmmm. The neo-liberal mind at work, in all its nonsensical irrationality, with the implication that every individual should pay for anything from which they might derive a benefit. (Major corporations are excluded, of course). As Maggie Thatcher said, “. . . there is no such thing as society.”.

    If I owe my neighbour flowers for my degree, then perhaps he can return the favour for his pension, or the paved road outside the house, or the F35 fighter jets, or the disability pension for his daughter, or subsidised healthcare. And the mining companies should definitely be giving us all flowers for their diesel subsidies. Then there are the large international software and computer companies who get a virtual free ride at the expense of taxpayers everywhere.

    Perhaps I will send them all a note that I want no flowers, and would they please donate the money to the unemployed who are about to lose their already pitiful income.

  9. jimpintin

    As someone who paid for most of their tertiary education I think the ‘ they got it free, so should we’ argument is weak and immature and should be dropped immediately. Surely we should be strongly pointing out to the Coalition and the public the long term damage to our society and economy of restricting access to tertiary (and any other) education on any grounds other than abilty. Free education and health is possible if we curtailed the ability of the wealthy to massively reduce their taxable income and dropped the obsession with tax cuts. No sign of ALP willingness to do either, too many of them benefit.

  10. Scott Grant

    I forgot to mention TAFE. Fee’s there have gone through the roof, recently, as well, although all the commentary I see is about Universities.

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