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Friday, March 25, 2005

Handouts and Debts

So the online debate over the proposed introduction of private unis in SL has been continuing over at the blogs of Mahangu, Morquendi and Indi. It's evolved into a lively discussion about the whole Free Education system. Even Indi's mum, Ms. Sujata Gamage a Former Director General of Tertiary Education in SL, has contributed. More on all of that later. The following is a personal account of my journey through the Australian tertiary education system, its handouts and debts, the costs and benefits accrued and brief look at the ongoing changes in tertiary education in Oz.


When I qualified to enter uni I was from a single income, single parent household topped off with a dysfunctional family. I lived on the outer border of the city (cheap housing) and Uni was on the other side of town, a two hour trip in each direction everyday of the week. If only I did a 3 day a week arts-degree, too bad I liked computing too much.

By Oz living standards I was well and truly in the realms of urban poor. If I had to pay upfront fees to enter uni I would have never made it and my family would have no means to purchase me a means to a degree.


The government offers students a means tested "student allowance" (i.e. if mummy and daddy earn lots you get zilch).This usually covers the expenses associated with travel, text books, stationary, Union Fees (yes its compulsory) and the subsidised cafeteria food. It also allows for discounted medical fees. While I was able to qualify for this allowance there are other allowances available to rural and independent (not living at home) students.

It's not like uni was completely free because Tertiary places are awarded to a student on basis that he/she accepts to pay the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) fee, this is actually an interest free loan by the government. For the better off there is the option to pay the fees upfront but for most of us the choice is "deferred payment". In special circumstances you can appeal to the Education Department to drop these fees (i.e. a free education). The course fees are based on the future income potential of your career. That is, Medical$$$$ > Engineer$$$ > Teacher$$, get my drift? The payments kick in once you finish your studies and start earning beyond a certain threshold. Also the more you earn the more you have to pay.

On top of this you get access to university provided student loans. One year I needed to upgrade to a better computer which could run at a reasonable speed. From my 286PC (no-HDD, 5.25" double FDD) to a 386PC (25 MHz, 3.5 “FDD, 25 MB HDD) so I had to get one of these loans. I had to get a part-time job to pay this off and it affected the studies a little but it had to be done.


I was able to graduate and start a career, allowing a change in my socio-economic circumstances away from the underprivileged beginnings to a reasonable middle-class life. It's also given me sense of acceptance of, security in and responsibility towards the society/state I live in. Of course there were other contributing factors, actors and phenomena but IMHO they had minor effects compared to the Equality of Opportunity provided by the state.

While I and a few of my friends got through, there were plenty more who started uni but dropped out. Most notably people from underprivileged rural backgrounds, broken families and non-english speaking backgrounds (FYI- not all migrants have good English).


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