Not surprisingly for an Opposition in an election year, Labor is opposing the recommendation of my latest report to lower the initial HELP threshold from $54,000 to $42,000.
These are the reasons they give:
The income contingent loans scheme (HECS-HELP), introduced by Labor, is based on the principle that you repay your contribution only if you benefit from your education in the way of higher salaries.
It is not a loan scheme as is understood in financial circles, but a social insurance program.
These arguments have their origins in the 1988 Wran report, which recommended the creation of HECS, but they don’t sit easily together. A social insurance program implies some relationship to other social insurance programs, while higher salaries implies relationship to some other counter-factual income, above what the graduate could have earned if they did not continue with their education. Given Australia’s means-tested welfare system for working age people, which is designed to make welfare financially unattractive compared to work, the two arguments are in inherent tension.
In practice, neither benchmark has been actively used to set the threshold. The current threshold is around $20,000 above the minimum wage and common social security programs. But at $54,000 in 2014-15, the threshold is below all persons average weekly earnings (the original Wran suggestion) of about $59,000. The threshold was last re-based in 2004-05 (we have the historical thresholds in an appendix to the report), but since then has increased by 17 per cent in real terms, as although not set according to average weekly earnings, it is indexed to movements in average weekly earnings.
Even if we accepted Labor’s financial benefit principle, it is not at all clear how it should be implemented. What is the counter-factual for financial benefit? Should it be age-adjusted? Should we have a different threshold for diploma borrowers? Should it be based on household rather than personal income? So far as I can see, while several people other than Labor have offered the financial benefit idea since the report was released, none have attempted to think through how it should be set.
Our report argues that ‘we should not turn HELP features that are based on political judgments of their time, or on assumptions that no longer apply, into principles that cannot be overturned’. Like most Grattan reports, it is at least an implicit argument against status quo bias, against all the rationalisations that attach themselves to existing policy arrangements, and an attempt to think about what a policy should be trying to achieve, and whether that can be done in a better way.
The average weekly earnings idea was a by-product of the late 1980s politics involved in ending free (to the student) higher education. But it sets HELP debtors up in quite a privileged position compared to other people being protected from financial hardship by the government, and we should ask why. The most obvious answer is that we need to protect people from financial risk to attract them to higher education. That’s an empirical issue, but nobody has shown that the current threshold is the right one from that perspective. England and New Zealand now, and Australia in the past, have all had lower thresholds without significant demand-side issues. Until recently, the barrier to higher education participation has always been the supply of places, not demand for them.
In the absence of a strong principled or empirical argument for the current repayment system, threshold reform is an element of moving HELP towards focusing subsidies on debtors with long-term low household income, ie social insurance. This keeps the justifiable element of Labor’s argument, while leaving open the idea of reducing the initial repayment threshold.