Should uni be free? No, but hear me out.

I know what you’re thinking after reading that headline. Of course, university education should be free! Everyone should have equal access to a quality tertiary education, if that is something they want to pursue.  

But the truth is, it’s just not as simple as giving out free degrees.  

Fees-free university education was once a reality for Australian students. Between 1974 and 1989, thousands of eager, young students enjoyed a ‘free’ education, paid for entirely by the Australian taxpayer.  

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam abolished university fees in 1974, an election promise which has made him something of a folk hero among many Australians. He believed that merit, rather than family wealth, should decide who benefits from tertiary education. In addition to introducing the fees-free system, Whitlam also brought in the student income support schemes we still have in place today – Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy. 

Free university education was replaced with the HECS loan system by the 1989 Hawke government. One of the reasons given for changing the policy was that those who were actually benefiting from the system were students who came from well-off backgrounds. Even though enrolment was free, many working-class Australians didn’t actually graduate high school at the time, so weren’t able to benefit from the system. 

The fight to bring back free uni has been ongoing ever since, with politicians and students proclaiming that education is a basic human right and would improve accessibility and equality. But there is an often ignored yet plainly obvious issue with this argument – there are so many other factors that also impact your ability to go to uni. Like lack of time because you have to work. Or you have a disability. Or caring responsibilities.  

One of the main arguments used to support a fees-free model is the idea that removing fees would decrease the barriers to entry and create a more accessible education system. However, in countries like Australia, which have HELP or HECS loan systems and require little to no upfront fees, finances are not one of the most impactful influences on participation rates.  

A 2018 study from New Zealand’s Education department looking at tertiary participation found that factors like family history, low socioeconomic status, and mental health issues are much more likely to impact someone’s decision to attend university. In fact, the main influence found was performance in school. This means that you are much less likely to attend university, regardless of finances, if you struggled in high school, live in a low socioeconomic area, or if neither of your parents have a university education. 

Another often cited argument for fees-free education is that it will provide opportunities for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, allowing them to move out of their socioeconomic demographic by increasing their earning potential, which will create a more equitable landscape.  

However, this belief fails to acknowledge that financing is not the only way that university entrance is restrained. When the cost of a course is free, demand exceeds supply, which means that enrolments have to be rationed in some other way. This is typically done using non-price methods, like the ATAR ranking system in Australia. This method, while allowing students who could not afford to pay fees access to a university education, still favours those who come from privileged backgrounds. Under this system, students who attend higher quality schools, have been able to access private tutors, or come from families who highly value education will likely score higher ATAR results and have a higher chance of getting a place. The truth is there is just no evidence that people from disadvantaged backgrounds can actually benefit from this system. 

Fees-free education models typically only focus on one financial factor – the actual cost of enrolling. But this way of thinking ignores all of the other financial factors that contribute to someone’s decision to attend university. Attending uni costs additional money other than just fees. Students need to purchase textbooks or stationery supplies, a laptop or computer, specialised computer programs, or uniforms. This doesn’t even take into account the cost of doing mandatory unpaid placements, which a reality for thousands of students.  

Most students work casually or part time, and have made the decision to give up that full time salary right now because they expect their future earnings will make up for the loss. This is just not a choice that is possible for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who don’t have family support or have caring responsibilities that mean they have to work full time to make ends meet. 

In the current cost of living crisis, more and more students are struggling to get by on government benefits AND income from a part time or casual job. Many students work more than one job to survive, and are still trying desperately to fill their car with petrol or pay their weekly rent. Free uni wouldn’t change this reality.  

For those who don’t want to accrue a large HECS debt, here is always TAFE which offers over 70 free courses. You can study many of the same subject areas that universities offer, like nursing, business or IT. The Queensland Government also offers a range of free apprenticeship and traineeships. So, there are free study options out there right now. Just not at university.  

A fees-free university model simply would not increase accessibility for those who would benefit most from a university education – young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, people living with a disability, First Nations students, or those living in regional or remote locations – without the addition of well-funded social welfare programs, easier access to mental health services and significant changes to our state school systems. 

If we want more students to attend university and more diversity within our cohorts, they need access to allowances that actually pay enough so they can survive without resorting to working multiple jobs and we need to level the playing field so everyone gets a fair go. 

Maybe then we can talk about making uni free. But until then, let’s not pretend that fees-free university is the solution to ending inequality. 

Celeste Muller
Celeste Muller

Celeste (she/her) is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer and Editor at Glass Media. She has a Bachelor's degree in Design (Interior Design) and is currently studying Journalism and Economics at QUT.

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