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Duncan Maskell
The University of Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, says he wouldn’t have gone to university if he’d had to pay fees. Photograph: James Ross/AAP
The University of Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, says he wouldn’t have gone to university if he’d had to pay fees. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

University of Melbourne vice-chancellor calls for free university education

Duncan Maskell says idea that education is only of private benefit to individuals, not public benefit to society must be reversed

The vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Duncan Maskell, has joined the Greens and student unions in calling for tertiary education to be free.

Speaking to students and staff on Tuesday evening, Maskell said it had become “sadly fashionable” to assume students taking out loans to pay for university was a “natural order of things”, rather than a policy decision.

University was free in Australia from 1974 until the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs) in 1989.

Maskell, who is currently the highest paid vice-chancellor in Australia, was a beneficiary of the policy. He said it was “unequivocally true, coming from my background, that if I had been required to take out a loan I would not have gone to university”.

“I suspect that the prospective burden of significant debt is still a big factor in people choosing not to go to university,” he said.

Since changes made under the Coalition’s job-ready graduates package, single courses cost anywhere between $4,000 and $14,500.

After Labor won the 2022 federal election, the sector has been engaging in policy discussions to inform the upcoming universities accord process, poised to be the biggest reform to higher education since 2008. An interim report is expected this month.

The chair of the Australian Universities Accord Panel, Mary O’Kane, has urged the sector to be “big, bold and radical” in its submissions, while the education minister, Jason Clare, says improving equitable access to higher education is a key element of discussion in the accord.

“One of the most important radical changes that could be made to facilitate this would be once more to make education free to the Australian domestic student,” Maskell said.

“Since the introduction of student fees we have not solved the problem of disadvantaged people having access to higher education.

“What we have done by normalising the business of the students paying their university fees, is to entrench in our culture the idea that university education is only of private benefit to individuals – not public benefit to societies. This is a gravely mistaken emphasis.”

The latest research shows Australia is falling 25,000 short of the 2030 target for 20% of total university enrolments to be students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Several countries including Germany, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Chile, Mexico, Latvia and Estonia offer domestic students free tuition, while in New Zealand, the first year of study is free.

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In response to suggestions the cost of free university – estimated at around $69bn over 10 years – was too high, Maskell said the future positives of driving up university admissions would outweigh the economic burden.

“This is in fact a point made by successive ministers for education, usually in defending student debts against criticism that they are too burdensome to students,” he said.

“Year-on-year public revenue at stake in funding student learning is not the main issue. This is fundamentally about the kind of population that we want to shape for the future in this country.

“The private benefit is not, and should not be the whole story that determines our policy choices.”

The issue of student debt has been in the spotlight in recent weeks after a decades-high indexation rate of 7.1% came into effect, increasing average student debts of $24,770 by about $1,700.

Maskell said the federal government also needed to address the issue of competitive research grants, which came “nowhere near” to meeting the cost of research.

Australia’s gross domestic spending on research and development is 1.8% of GDP, lagging below the OECD average of 2.7% and a fall from 2.25% in 2008.

Bachelor degrees at the University of Melbourne are estimated to cost between $100,000 to $180,000 for international students.

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