Higher education reforms "time bomb" for future medical workforce

03 September, 2014

The government should urgently reconsider its higher education reforms amid concerns that the critical change will have a devastating and lasting effect on the size, shape, and distribution of the future medical workforce, AMA President A/Prof Brian Owler said in a recent statement.

The 'ticking time bomb' reforms would price a medical degree out of the reach of children from working Australian families, burden medical graduates with debt in excess of $250,000, discourage students from pursuing lower-remunerated medical specialties, and rob rural, regional, and outer-suburban communities of much-needed doctors, he said.

"Medicine is a much sought after qualification, but there is significant potential under the new policy for an explosion in the costs of a medical degree and the levels of debt that medical students will incur," A/Prof Owler said.

"There is good evidence that high fees and the prospects of significant debt deter people from lower socio-economic backgrounds from entering university.

"Overseas evidence shows that, in relation to medicine, a high level of student debt is a factor in career choice – driving people towards better-remunerated areas of practice and away from less well paid specialties like general practice.

"Entry to medical school must continue to be based on merit rather than financial capacity."

Putting off students from pursuing rural careers

A/Prof Owler said: "There is a real danger that significantly higher fees and student debt will force graduates to pursue their careers in the highest-paid specialties in the capital cities.

"This would rob rural and outer-suburban communities of much-needed medical specialists to meet growing demand for these services.

"This outcome goes against the government's oft-stated objective of making more efficient use of the health workforce.

"The Australian community expects and deserves some certainty about the future of the health system and the medical workforce."

The key Budget changes

  • University fees to be deregulated from 1 January 2016, with caps on student contributions removed. The only limit is that universities will not be able to charge domestic students more than the fees charged to international students.
  • The Commonwealth's contribution towards course fees for new students will be cut by an average of 20 per cent, from 1 January 2016.
  • Graduates will begin to repay their HELP debt when they start earning over $50,638* from 1 July 2016 (currently $53,345).
  • Interest on HELP debt will be levied at the 10 year Treasury bond rate, with a maximum rate of 6 per cent. It is currently based on CPI.