This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
Australian Federal Education Minister Chris Pyne is taking steps to ensure that not even the sweet release of death will free anyone from their college burden. Presently, if you die before you completely pay off your debt — you’re reading VICE so probably have a job in the arts and will meet the reaper before financial independence — unpaid fees disappear into the ether like so many Tropic of Cancer library fines.
But if Pyne has his way the debt will become the responsibility of your next of kin. Hopefully you’ll have a couple of kids to suck it up, but it’s more likely that if you meet an untimely death your elderly pensioner parents will be living on cat food to pay for all those semesters of Philosophy.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quick to throw watery beer on the fire telling reporters at Parliament House, "We have no plans to change those debt recovery arrangements." And Australians know that when Tony Abbott says something, he means it, unless it’s about taxes or welfare or refugees or education or health.
Minister Pyne was hardly alone in his statement that he has no "ideological opposition" to collecting fees from the estates of dead students. Treasurer Joe Hockey (2014 version) followed his reasoning saying, "It shouldn't be different to any other loan…That's the same as any other loan, any other mortgage we have in our lives."
Commenting on student’s responsibilities regarding HECS fees has always been a sticky issue for the Government, largely due to the fact most Members of Parliament graduated during the Whitlam golden age of no university fees at all. It’s hard not to feel indignant when university fees are being used as a fundraising tool by people who never had to worry about them. One person who agrees is 1987-era Joe Hockey. We can assume he’ll manage to pay the University of Sydney’s $250 administration fee at some point before meeting his maker.
In reality the suggestion hasn’t come out of left field, following a budget focused on getting graduates to tackle their debt earlier. The income level where you’ll begin making repayments has been reduced by 10 percent.
In the past if you were lucky enough to get a decent job and managed to avoid getting hit by a tram your HECS debt probably wouldn’t become a crippling financial boogie man that lives under your Ikea bed. But as of 2016 even the most financially prepared will struggle to pay theirs off in their lifetime thanks to universities being able to decide their own fees. While we’re worrying now about fees following us into death, we shouldn’t really, since it’s our children and our children’s children who are going to end up paying for our Arts degrees in the end.
Don’t worry, education won’t totally become the domain of the sweater-wearing rich, government loans will be still be available, albeit with a higher interest rate than you’re already choking on.
But the big question is, how much money could be raised from this decision? According to University of Sydney Student Representative Council President Jennifer Light, "The proportion of people who die with a remaining HECS/HELP debt is 10,000 out of (a total number of debtors of) 2.7 million." The projected income the move would generate is $800 million a year by 2017, with those figures one would assume the government was projecting 80,000 people to die over the next three years with an outstanding HECS debt, even with cuts to healthcare, that seems high.
The $800 million isn’t exactly comparable to the billions the government can make from say cutting financial aid, but it is a pretty big carrot to swing in the face of anyone who thinks students are mooches. Although a closer reading of the original document shows that the magic number isn’t as generous as it appears. The $800 million to be made is pulled from estimating the debt of the deceased as well as the debt from Australians living overseas — all 400,000 thousand of them. One could suggest that instead of focusing on the estates of 10,000 people who have passed, perhaps that aforementioned 400,000 expats is a less sensitive pie.
But for now there is one thing Australians have learned, if you have a HECS debt, love your kids, and have any loose plans to check into The Farm, make sure your money is in a bank account as far offshore as you can find. We’d say you can pry our fees from our cold dead hands, but you’ve already thought of that.
Follow Wendy on Twitter: @WendyWendys