You may have seen their garish posters plastered around campus, emblazoned with the rallying cry ‘Make Education Free Again’. This is the National Union of Students’ (NUS) education campaign.
The NUS is the peak representative body for students in Australia. In March, the ANU Students’ Association voted to accredit with the NUS and agreed to pay $5,000 in affiliation fees.
Under the mantle of ‘accessible education for everyone’, the NUS campaign encourages students to ‘fight for free education’. The campaign assures us ‘free education is not impossible’, stating ‘a very generous estimate of the cost of free tertiary education in Australia is $8 billion’ annually.
However, free education is not a self-evident good. Given the existence of universal, income-contingent, student loans, there is no clear a priori relationship between free tuition and increased access to university for low SES students.
The Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth tracked university attendance among those who turned 15 in 2006, the year after the third major increase in tuition fees since the end of free education. The empirical evidence found students from low SES backgrounds were just as likely to attend university despite higher fees.
A similar trend was observed in the United Kingdom, where higher education reforms significantly increased fees in 2012. But application rates and enrolment shares from students from low SES backgrounds actually expanded; a report found 18 year olds in disadvantaged areas were 12 per cent more likely to be admitted in 2013 than in 2011.
These examples support the findings of an Australian study on the under-representation of low SES students in higher education, which found no evidence that credit constraints deter high-achieving students from pursuing tertiary education.
However, SES background is likely to determine ATAR – those from higher SES backgrounds are much more likely to obtain higher scores. This finding is important because entry scores are the dominant driver of university attendance, particularly in the case of elite universities where ATAR cut-offs bar many from attending.
Given a student’s academic performance in secondary school is the most important determiner of whether they can access higher education, an ‘accessible education for everyone’ should begin by redressing educational disadvantage in primary and secondary schools, rather than giving $8 billion in handouts to those already privileged enough to attend university.
Based on conservative estimates, this sum would be enough to build over 500 new primary schools, or fund over one million early intervention programs for young children with special learning needs. Moreover, introducing free tuition fails to tackle the pressures that low SES students currently face at university.
According to another report, low SES students are indeed more likely to drop out of university. It’s not because of the deferred tuition cost, but because they have to work to pay for rent, food and transport. It can also be because they do not feel a sense of belonging as they are financially restricted from participating in university life. Instead of addressing these endemic, but resolvable, issues, the NUS is wasting its oxygen campaigning for a pie in the sky: a measure that would cost Australians one quarter of the annual education budget and three times the amount spent annually on Youth Allowance for students.
In accrediting with the NUS, the ANU Students’ Association have pledged to help the NUS spread its message nationwide. But does this end goal really help to make education ‘more accessible for everyone’?
Jessy Wu is the former Education Officer of the ANU Students’ Association. She resigned in April 2017 for reasons unrelated to ANUSA’s decision to re-accredit with the NUS (she swears). To call for a referendum to permanently disaffiliate from the NUS, a petition with 107 signatures is required.