Please study at home

The bill introduced last month to reduce the discounts for up-front payment of student contribution amounts or early repayment of HELP debts (discussed here and here) contains a previously unannounced policy: to stop Australian students getting tuition subsidies or HELP loans if their course of study is primarily at an overseas campus of an Australian university.

Peter Garrett’s second reading speech explained the rationale:

As students are only required to pay back their HECS-HELP debt if they file an Australian tax return, there is a higher risk that HECS-HELP debts incurred offshore will not be repaid, or not repaid for a longer period of time.

I’m not sure how big a problem this is in itself, but it is a sign that the government is concerned about HELP debt held by people not living in Australia. That the government makes no attempt to recover HELP debt from Australians working overseas is one clear design flaw in the income-contingent loan scheme.

It’s a flaw that has been exacerbated by other changes to law and policy. As dual citizenship has been permitted by Australia and other countries, the number of people with work rights in multiple countries has increased. More people can work overseas, and it would be very surprising if we did not see more people doing so.

The source countries of migration to Australia have also shifted towards the Asian countries in which Australian universities have their overseas campuses. According to the 2010 enrolment data, nearly 7% of domestic students speak an east or south-east Asian language at home (and probably more can speak one, but tend to speak English at home). A similar proportion were born in those countries. It would presumably be relatively easy for them to return to Asia to study at an Australian campus.

The flow of people between Australia and other countries is not a problem it itself. But it becomes a problem when it interacts with a debt recovery system designed for a less mobile world.