In Australia, We Don’t Worry So Much About Our Student Debt

by Samantha Mee

First, in regard to the word ‘uni’ (wherein uni = university = college): I’m Australian, and I once had a Canadian boyfriend-ish person who was all ‘Gah, call it university! It’s important!’ But in Australia we do tend to stick with the diminutive for pretty much everything. Maybe it’s our relaxed attitudes? Maybe I am making a gross generalisation? I DON’T KNOW, WE ALL JUST CALL IT UNI OK?

I’ve been going to uni on and off, sometimes full-time and sometimes part-time, since 2004. In that time, I’ve gained a Bachelor of Communication, Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Creative Writing, and I’ve started a Master’s in Applied Linguistics. My parents paid my first two semesters of fees upfront, about $4,500, and then I started racking up my loans (then called HECS for Higher Education Contribution Scheme, now called HELP for I don’t even know).

The Australian Federal Government provides these loans for Australian citizens, charging no interest. They send me a statement every year, and it goes up slightly, in line with the consumer price index. Most undergraduate degrees are Commonwealth Supported, which means that a certain amount of the fees are covered by the government. In short, the government pays some, and lends me the rest.

To me, my $30,000 uni loan doesn’t feel like real money, or a real debt. The repayments are made only if I earn over a certain amount, which is about $40,000 per year. And because I don’t earn very much as an agency temp, I really think I will never pay this loan back in full.

Many of my humanities/arts graduate friends have the same feelings; our loans don’t weigh on our minds. Sometimes we think how nice it would be to be earning enough to pay the loans off, but we mostly just want jobs related to our field and enough money to live on doing what we love.

Occasionally, I pull some overtime at work and the government takes $40-$70 from my pay towards the loan — it’s a gentle reminder that it’s there and waiting. But I also have friends who have paid for their degrees in full up front, or who have completely repaid their HECS/HELP debt because they studied something “proper” and got a “proper” job (hello accountants).

I don’t mean to sound flippant or ungrateful that I have such easy access to higher education; and certainly I could have made it even easier on myself by not buying a house at 21, not working the whole way through my studies, and instead getting Youth Allowance (financial assistance for students, also paid by the government). The sad thing is I just that I don’t see a job in my future where I will be earning enough to make significant payments. The job market where I live is not great, and I’m tied to the area with a home I’m paying off (another giant debt!) and an aging dog I will not leave.

I wanted to get into the public sector graduate programs, working out in the community, and had interviews with both the Federal and State government, but never quite got over the line. So now I’m a temp whose been working in the same (pretty great, if simple) job for nearly two years as a casual employee. Casual employment is a thing my American friends say doesn’t exist in the USA, but it’s a large chunk of the labour force in Australia. We basically get a higher hourly rate in exchange for ZERO job security and no guaranteed hours. So while my financial situation is something that bothers me a great deal, my uni debts aren’t a part of the worry.

My degree is something I use in my own time, for now. If I’m ever in a position to pay for it, then that’d be nice too.

Samantha Mee lives in Queensland, Australia.

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