These politicians studied for free – now they want to hike uni fees

Former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam abolished tuition fees in 1974.

Former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam abolished tuition fees in 1974. Photo: Getty

They are the politicians who want students to pay more for their university degrees – even though, when they were on campus, tuition was completely free.

As the Turnbull government pushes ahead with a 7.5 per cent increase to student fees, a TND analysis has found a majority of the Coalition frontbench was at university between 1974 and 1988 – when students did not pay fees.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and frontbench figures such as Attorney-General George Brandis and Defence Minister Marise Payne are among those who enjoyed a free education, according to the analysis of ministers’ personal biographies.

The examination also found it’s likely Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne would have only been slugged to attend university for one year, if at all.

Scroll down to see which ministers benefited from free education

It comes as the government tries to win support for its new higher education package, announced on Monday, which will also force students to start paying back their tuition debts once they earn $42,000 a year, down from $54,869.

A number of other frontbenchers, such as Health Minister Greg Hunt, Christian Porter (Social Services) and Michaelia Cash (Employment) are also likely to have enjoyed at least one year of free education before the HECS system was introduced.

In total, eight government ministers were at university when students were not charged fees, while another eight would have had at least one year of free university.

A younger cohort of nine ministers, including Kelly O’Dwyer (Financial Services), Josh Frydenberg (Energy), Alan Tudge (Human Services) and Education Minister Simon Birmingham entered university after the Hawke government introduced the HECS system in 1989.

The analysis looked at which frontbenchers studied between 1974 and 1988, the years when university was free in Australia. The New Daily asked ministers’ officers to clarify if they had paid university fees but did not receive responses.

Tuition fees were abolished by the Whitlam Labor government on January 1, 1974, a policy that lasted until 1989, when the Hawke Labor government introduced the HECS system.

The HECS system – which allows students to defer fees until they reach the specified annual income threshold – was further modified by the Howard government in 1996, with the government increasing fees and introducing a tiered pricing system for different degrees.

Under the Turnbull government’s proposed changes to the HECS (now HELP) system, fees will increase between $2000 and $3600.

Students will be expected to cover 46 per cent of the cost of their degree, up from 42 per cent.

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr Turnbull was asked how he squared a hike of uni fees with the fact he did not pay to go university.

“The bottom line is that it’s been established and accepted for a very long time that university students should contribute to the cost of their university education,” he told ABC Radio.

“HECS was introduced originally under the Hawke government, I recall, so this has been around for a very long time.”

But the decision has angered Labor, the Greens and the National Union of Students, which has vowed to fight the decision.

“The fee increases indicate that fees are going to be at the highest level that they’ve been in Australia’s history,” NUS education officer Anneke Demanuele told The New Daily.

“The threshold that they’re lowering it to is well below the average wage for Australians.

“It means that people who are already in a very difficult position are going to have to fork out at least an extra $500 a year. That’s pretty hard for people who are struggling to deal with a difficult job market and rising cost of living.”

Which ministers got a free education? *

Studied when uni was free (1974-88):

  • Malcolm Turnbull, Arts/Law (University of Sydney)
  • Arthur Sinodinos, Commerce (University of Newcastle)
  • Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Arts/Law (Australian National University)
  • George Brandis, Arts/Law (University of Queensland)
  • Marise Payne, Arts/Law (University of NSW)
  • Mitch Fifield, Arts (University of Sydney)
  • Fiona Nash, Arts (Mitchell College of Advanced Education)
  • Paul Fletcher, Arts/Law (University of Sydney)

Studied part of their degree when uni was free (before and after 1974 or 1989):

  • Barnaby Joyce, Commerce (University of New England)
  • Scott Morrison, Science (University of New South Wales)
  • Julie Bishop, Law (University of Adelaide)
  • Christian Porter, Arts/Economics (University of WA)
  • Christopher Pyne, Law (University of Adelaide)
  • Dan Tehan, Arts (University of Melbourne)
  • Michaelia Cash, Arts (Curtin University)
  • Greg Hunt, Arts/Law (University of Melbourne)

Studied under the HECS system (post-1989):

  • Alan Tudge, Arts/Law (University of Melbourne)
  • Josh Frydenberg, Economics/Law (Monash University)
  • Kelly O’Dwyer, Arts/Law (University of Melbourne)
  • Matt Canavan, Arts/Economics (University of Queensland)
  • Michael Keenan, Arts (Murdoch University/Charles University [Prague])
  • Peter Dutton, Business (QUT)
  • Scott Ryan, Arts (University of Melbourne)
  • Simon Birmingham, MBA (University of Adelaide)
  • Steven Ciobo, Commerce/Law (Bond University), Law (QUT)

* Only ministers with at least a bachelor’s degree included. Not all ministers’ university degrees listed.

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