Home World Business How paying off HECS-HELP has become even less attractive

How paying off HECS-HELP has become even less attractive

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Financial advisers warn low inflation combined with the government’s move to strip incentives for voluntary repayment means borrowers will be even less inclined to proactively repay student debt.  

The federal government is bracing for the HECS-HELP program to blow out by 560 per cent over the next decade.

Second year ANU student Julia Beard has concerns about the dual pressure of having a study and home loan in the future. Second year ANU student Julia Beard has concerns about the dual pressure of having a study and home loan in the future. Photo: Jamila Toderas

However, it has eliminated the 10 per cent discount given to those who pay up front and the 5 per cent bonus for those who repay voluntarily beyond the salary-linked annual requirements.

AMP financial planner Andrew Heaven said the no-interest HECS-HELP loan indexed annually to consumer price index was the “cheapest finance you will ever have.”

He cautioned former students and their parents to do the numbers before clearing study debt.

“It makes no economic sense to me to pay off your HECS debt quicker,” he said. 

“The simple maths is, provided the rate of return after tax that you get on investing is higher than the inflation rate, 1.5 per cent, you’d have to be on medication to pay it down. It’s a dumb move.”

In 2016 the Parliamentary Budget Office projected the annual cost of the HECS-HELP program was expected to grow from to $60 billion now to $180 billion by 2026.  

Second year ANU student Julia Beard said her study debt was not something she thought about too much yet but she worried about the dual pressure of having a study and home loan in the future. 

“If I gained some capital I would look to paying off my HECS so it was paid off earlier than the baseline,” she said.

“It is quite a concern having to balance those two, prioritise getting a house and paying off my HECS.” 

Grattan Institute higher education fellow Ittima Cherastidtham said figures from the PBO analysis were “on the high side” but the scheme was expensive and expanding. 

“As of mid-last year we had $53 billion outstanding and only about $37 billion of that is the real value of the debt so about $16 billion is cost,” she said.

Costs included the escalating interest paid by the government to offer subsidised loans as well as the write down for doubtful debts, as an estimated 19 per cent of borrowers are not expected to reach the $54,869 earnings threshold to repay.

Ms Cherastidtham has co-written institute reports about creating savings in the scheme by lowering the repayment threshold to $42,000, applying a universal 15 per cent loan fee to borrowers’ balances, and recovering HECS-HELP debt from deceased estates valued at $100,000 or more.

The think tank reports estimate lowering the threshold for repayment would mean almost 50 per cent more debtors would pay saving $500 million, with the latter two ideas estimated to save $700 million and $800 million each year respectively.

Senator Simon Birmingham: working on a new funding formula.

Senator Simon Birmingham is working on reforms to reduce the budget impact of running the HECS-HELP scheme. Photo: Andrew Meares

Ms Cherastidtham said what was clear was that the debt merry-go-round had to stop somewhere. 

“There is no doubt that education provides social benefits through the society, but we want to make this more affordable for the later generations,” she said.

“It will have to be paid by someone.” 

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the demand driven system caused a 71 per cent rise in commonwealth supported higher education places since 2009.

“While the repayment bonus offered a good deal for those who could afford it, ultimately the voluntary repayment bonus had little effect on encouraging Australians to repay their loans faster,” he said. 

Work was underway with an expert panel to form a policy plan from more than 1000 submissions within the Driving Fairness, Innovation and Excellence in Australian Higher Education policy paper released mid-2016. 

The government was considering introducing a household income test for HELP repayment, lowering the minimum threshold for repayment, changing the indexation of HELP repayment thresholds, restricting or discontinuing the availability of HELP loans or Commonwealth subsidies to those who have left the workforce permanently.  

No decision had been made about whether to grandfather current arrangements for existing students or phase in new arrangements over time.  

Mr Birmingham made a “guarantee that, whatever we do in the future, the Turnbull government will ensure HELP student loans will continue to be one of the cheapest loans people will ever get.”

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