ALISON BRANLEY: Debt burden may deter struggling students

AS strategic moves go, it was a pretty savvy one on behalf of the state government.

On the face of it, removing subsidies for TAFE fine arts courses sounded appalling.

Singling out the arts as having low completion rates and poor job prospects, outrageous.

News emerged this week that without subsidies the two diplomas of visual arts at Hunter TAFE would cost $12,500 each next year for the one-year courses.

Do both and that’s going to set an art student back $25,000.

It’s hefty compared to a three-year fine arts degree over at the University of Newcastle, where a federal government-subsidised place is $5868 a year, just over $17,600 for the whole degree.

(Although compared to an unsubsidised university place, $70,500, TAFE is  pretty good value).

But wait, Hunter TAFE said, our students can now defer their fees just like university students.

Guess who they defer that loan to? The federal government.

Barry O’Farrell has cleverly manipulated the system  so that the state government no longer has to fund those pesky art students who need expensive things like kilns, pottery wheels and studios.

It begs the question: who will be next?

Further, under the new VET FEE-HELP (Vocational Education and Training ‘‘fee’’ Higher Education Loan Program) scheme students defer repayment until they earn more than $49,000 a year.

Let’s consider how many fine arts graduates are likely to earn more than $49,000 a year.

The annual median wage in Australia in 2011 was $577 a week, $30,004 a year.

If fine arts graduates can crack $50,000 a year, good luck to them.

But the net result is likely to be a lot of unpaid debt loaned to people who were never likely to have the resources to pay it back.

That’s never been a problem before, has it?

Never mind the students who only want to do a six-month Certificate III, it is now $6000 a year at Hunter TAFE, and those students are not eligible for VET-FEE HELP.

The pure price tag of these new courses is likely to turn many off, let alone the debt.

A $25,000 debt sitting around waiting to be paid off will affect the amount a bank will lend students later in life for mortgages and personal loans.

(Oh and wait there’s a 20per cent loan fee for VET FEE-HELP, so make that a $30,000 debt, that is indexed).

As anyone whose has paid off a university HECS debt will tell you, if you do earn over the threshold, it also swallows tax return payments for probably the next decade, at least.

So if you do get a TAFE diploma, or degree, don’t expect any free cash to be sitting around waiting for you to start up your own gallery or some pesky other small business.

Some students will choose university over TAFE, others who needed a TAFE pathway to university will miss out and many will simply bypass TAFE completely.

Without enrolments the courses will cease to exist.

Among those students who bypass TAFE, statistics show, their earning capacity will be reduced, they will pay less tax and contribute less to the economy.

But the biggest fear of TAFE teachers is quite simply the quality of education.

TAFE has to charge $12,500 for its courses because it also has to fund libraries, career services, student counselling, disabled access, study help and all the other things required of any major education institution.

A competitor who might enter the market in this new open field does not have this charter, nor the same imperative to offer a quality product and produce talented students.

A competitor could set up a few easels in an office somewhere, let anyone with some cash in, print out a certificate and disappear the next day.

With it taking 120 years of history of the art school at Hunter Street Campus.