Keeping Our Heads Above Water

This story starts six months into my degree. It’s 2017 and I’m a fresh first year. My biggest problem is juggling a Thursday night at the Bot Bar with an 8am Friday class. I’m not 100% sure if I choose the right degree (it was indeed not). My cooking skills consisted only of microwaving, and I had only just discovered garlic.  

But my perspective was shifting. I was learning more about the world at my job, rather than in a lecture hall studying Pavlov. Census date came for Semester 2, and on that Friday I sat down and decided I would push through with the semester, despite not loving it. By Monday, I was calling myself a fool and withdrew with financial penalty. Little did I really understand the consequences of $4,719 long-term. I can admit I was undereducated and naive – I vividly remember joking I was that student who ‘chucked it onto my HECS’. My uni fees were a future-Zoe problem. So, off I went on my gap-year, sipping on my barista-made oat lattes twice a day.  

I hate saying the c-word: COVID. I wasn’t eligible for any government financial assistance as I was between jobs – worst timing ever. I learnt that it was okay to interpret ‘window shopping’ in its literal sense, and I managed to move out of home in 2021. No amount of planning, calculating, budgeting and researching prepares you for this. With financial confidence achieved (read: how a $5 coffee affected a weekly budget), I finally started giving more thought to debt and how these government schemes work. I started understanding the scary-looking acronyms I had previously avoided thinking about: CSP (Commonwealth Supported Place), SSAF (Student Services & Amenities Fee), HELP (Higher Education Loan Program), and HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme). But just when I thought I had it sorted out, I came across two terms which stopped me in my tracks: minimum repayment threshold and indexation. Here, I began to understand what financial student rights meant — and the lack of its presence in our conversations. 

Minimum Repayment Threshold: The level of repayment (between nil and 10%) of HELP debt, dependent on one’s income bracket. Regardless of how large or small the HELP debt is, the more income earnt, the faster you are forced to pay back the loan. The average degree costs $24,000. So, if you are in the lowest repayment income bracket earning $48,361 per year, at the 1% repayment rate you would be required to pay $483 per year. 

Indexation: Applied to HELP debt that is 11 months or older on 1 June each year, ensuring alignment with the cost of living and inflation, as measured by the consumer price index. Irrespective of the interest-free nature of HELP loans, if they are indexed to inflation, the total of the loan will rise if cost of living increases. In 2023, with inflation set to increase to 7.8%, students are looking at a possible $1,900 increase to their HELP debt after four years of studying an average-costing degree. That’s almost a $500 jump from 2022 indexation. 

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Have we talked about why we’ve come to university in the first place? We’re here for an educational experience — and a quality one, too. As students, we have a need to both financially exist and engage in university opportunities, but it’s becoming clear that both cannot concurrently exist— not in this economy anyway. This causes what I’m (unofficially) labelling ‘The Expense-Engagement Conundrum’.  

The truth is, it’s becoming harder for students to keep their head above water and make ends meet. The application of indexation means students’ loans will be getting more expensive in a post-Covid economy — something few students will be able to afford. The simple truth is that the longer you take to repay your HELP debt, the more it grows. This is particularly worrying if you are repaying less than the annual indexation — even though you are making the mandatory repayments, your debt will continue to increase. Some people will argue that this doesn’t really matter – after all, there is no interest, and the debt dies with you. But many young people don’t realise this debt can impact your borrowing power. And since HELP debt repayment is tied to your income, it’s most likely to affect low-income earners. Young Australians don’t need any more barriers to home ownership. 

Many students I’ve spoken to are concerned about their day-to-day expenses, and how they will manage their debt post university. How can we enjoy our time at uni if all we are thinking about is how to pay the next bill? I’ve had the privilege in sitting in all kinds of conversations with the university about this cycle, and what this means for student welfare and health. It makes me physically ill to hear stories of students struggling. I’m tired being part of the conversation and I want to do something about it. 

On my second day as QUT Student Guild President, I received an email I have been holding my breath for. The opportunity to provide a submission into the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Abolishing Indexation and Raising the Minimum Repayment Income for Education and Training Loans) Bill 2022, introduced by Greens Deputy Leader and Education spokesperson Senator, Mehreen Faruqi. I had made some informal comments and contributions prior to this —very unlike me to be open about my federal politics opinions, as I’m not an inherently political person. But I’ll make an exception for something as important as this.  

Abolishing indexation and raising the minimum repayment income allows students to come back to the surface for some air — and this Bill means there’s a buoy in sight. Due in February 2023, I’ll be writing on behalf of the QUT Guild, and students more broadly, in support of the bill and presenting this to the Senate. These changes have real and relevant impacts to our educational experience.  

As students, I implore you to take a closer look into the financial commitment of studying – research what this means for you, check your eligibility for available services like applying for withdrawal of academic and financial penalty, utilise the Guild Grocer if you’re in need, and advocate for your education. Because your welfare and experience matters. You matter. 

If you would like to have your say, complete this survey. The data collected will be integral to providing the Senate with true and factual information about the education experience at QUT, and Australia more broadly.

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Zoe Davidson is the 2023 Student Guild President. Before that, she served within the Student Guild as the Clubs & Societies Officer (2022) and the Education Faculty Councillor (2021). Zoe studies a Bachelor of Business (Advertising) and Secondary Education (Mathematics) at QUT, starting her degree in 2017. 

Zoe Davidson
Zoe Davidson
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