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Struggling students to be cut off from HELP loans

Students on University Avenue at the University of Sydney. Photo: Allison Hore

By ALLISON HORE

New legislation being proposed by the Australian government as part of the Job-ready Graduates package will leave low performing students without government support, if it passes through parliament.

Under the scheme students with a “low completion rate” will no longer be able to access a Commonwealth supported place, HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP. For a first year Bachelor degree student, a low completion rate would mean failing more than 50 percent of eight or more units. 

The government says the scheme will help “protect” students and taxpayers from situations where students accumulate “large HELP debts that do not provide benefits to the student and are unlikely to be repaid”. 

“These measures will ensure students can’t take on a study load they won’t complete, leaving them without a qualification but a large debt,” said federal minister for education, Dan Tehan.

“The lack of transparency of a student’s enrolment has allowed some non-genuine students to enrol and re-enrol at multiple providers at the same time.”

Mr. Tehan said the government is aware of cases where students have racked up debts ranging from $220,000 up to $660,000 across multiple incomplete courses, with no qualification to show for it. In introducing the legislation the minister gave an example of a student who accumulated $663,000 in debt after starting 44 courses at 26 institutions. The student, who started university in 1991, did not graduate.

The government has since introduced a cap on how much money students can borrow which currently sits at a little over $106,000.

Despite the education minister’s assurance the proposed legislation is “putting students’ interests first” it has already received widespread backlash from students and graduates. Molly Willmott, president of the National Union of Students, said that factors such as financial instability, disability, mental health challenges and poor teaching quality can all be impediments to the success of students. 

“These are issues that are often unreported and receive inadequate support from tertiary institutions or the government,” she said in a statement.

Minister Tehan said that students who can demonstrate they are in situations of hardship which negatively affect their academic performance, such as illness or bereavement, may be allowed special consideration by their education institution. Students’ “low completion rates” will also not be carried with them if they transfer to another course.

But for Ms. Willmott this is not enough. She thinks students having “the future of their study taken away from” unless they can prove to their universities or the government, which she says are “failing young people”, they are struggling is not acceptable. She also worries that the extra pressure from failure will be harmful to students’ wellbeing. 

“The Job-Ready Graduate Package is promoting a pay for play higher education sector that will put extreme pressure on students to succeed at universities,” she said.

“It is an agenda to incentivise success through fear of punishment, which will only harm the wellbeing and success of our students.”

The National Union of Students are encouraging people who are unhappy with the changes to attend a “national day of protest” on Friday August 28 which also fight against funding cuts for universities and higher fees for arts students. 

Should the legislation pass, the changes will commence on January 1 next year. For year twelvers grappling with final exams during the ongoing pandemic, the tightening of the government’s purse strings will be another hurdle to jump to access higher education. 

 

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