When Robert Walker decided to return to university to study a Bachelor of Laws, he was already 73 years old.
One year later, the former architect is getting ready to begin a double Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Finance and Economics at Macquarie University. By the time he graduates, he will be 78 years old.
“The opportunity is there. Learning is never wasted,” he says.
“Education is always worthwhile even if you don’t directly apply it, as it involves you with people with a like mind, gives you an interest and keeps you focused.”
Like most people enrolled in university, Mr Walker – who came to Australia as a postgraduate architect student in 1952 – has relied on the HELP scheme to cover the majority of his study expenses during the four years of his degree.
But unlike most of his younger classmates, it is highly unlikely that he will pay his student loan back, as his annual income does not exceed the threshold beyond which repayments are required.
Does this make the HELP scheme the ultimate educational freebie for pensioners?
The Higher Education Loan Program (HELP)
Everyone who studies at a tertiary level in Australia is charged higher education fees, although the Federal Government offers loans and subsides to relieve most of the costs associated with attending university.
The two main types of loan used by Australian university students are HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP. FEE-HELP is a non-subsidised loan scheme that attracts a 25 per cent loan fee for undergraduate courses.
Currently the FEE-HELP limit is $120,002 for students undertaking medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses and $96,000 for all other students. HECS-HELP is subsidised by the government, with no upper limit to the amount a student can accrue through the system.
While most students are expected to accrue a debt between $15,000 and $33,000, some individuals have been known to accrue student debt in excess of $300,000 and $400,000.
Both loans currently have a minimum repayment threshold on income of $51,309, below which no compulsory repayment is required.
Above this threshold, repayments have to be made on a sliding scale of between four and eight per cent of an individual’s total income.
HELP loans are interest-free, but an individual’s debt increases each year as it’s adjusted in line with changes in the cost of living.
The current amount of student HELP debt owed to the government is in excess of $30 billion.
Free HELP for seniors
A single person eligible for the full age pension could expect an income of approximately $21,505 with benefits, while couples can expect a combined annual pension of around $32,417, dependent upon their assets.
This figure is well below the $51,309 income threshold for compulsory HELP repayments.
According to the Department of Education, an individual’s accumulated HELP debt is also written off upon their death, with only compulsory repayments up to the time of death being collectible.
A number of universities also offer several means-tested scholarship programs, some of which are open to recipients of the age pension. For example, Macquarie University currently offers a Mature-Age Non-Current School Leaver Scholarship of $4938 per year to undergraduate students studying full time and suffering financial hardship.
Data from the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) states that an individual can be considered suffering financial hardship if they receiving a Centrelink (or other Commonwealth) means-tested income support payment, such as the age pension.
According to the Department of Human Services, up to $7,310 of equity and merit-based scholarships are also exempt from the income test for the Age Pension. Despite these benefits for seniors, the number of mature-aged university students aged over 65 remains low, with students over the age of 65 making up 0.8 per cent of total enrolment numbers.