Debt and Dysphoria: Why Increasing Student Debt Might Suck More Than You Think

by | Sep 21, 2015 | Rest of the World

By Fern Thompsett:

dysphoria (n) – A state of unease or generalised dissatisfaction with life. 


It might be time to stock up on the Mee Goreng. Standing out from the crowd of cuts proposed by the Abbott government’s federal budget last year was a devastating blow to university funding. Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen a wave of resistance sweep the country; in fact, Australian students and faculty are arguably more galvanised now than they have been in many years. But whilst the economic shock alone is certainly worth protesting, our fight must be about more than just money.

Let’s begin with the bare facts. The LNP intends to cut state support to tertiary education programs by an average of 20%. Add to this the deregulation of tuition fees, which have historically been capped Australia-wide in order to minimise differences in cost between institutions. Given the first point, it’s safe to assume that many universities (even safer to assume that the Group of 8, including UQ, will be amongst them) will seek to recoup lost state funding by hiking student fees an estimated 30-60% or more. The third and lesser known item on the agenda is to, for the very first time, charge interest on HECS-HELP loans (up to 6%), and exact repayments from a lower income threshold.

It isn’t hard to foresee the result: bigger, longer student debt. In fact, although accurate predictions are difficult to make, folks far cleverer than I have calculated that graduates of high-demand courses like medicine and law could be saddled with debt upwards of $200 000 (current levels for these courses sit between $40 000 – $50 000). Small wonder that critics are likening the forecasted student debt to a second mortgage – a perverse prospect, given that fresh university graduates are at a particularly financially vulnerable point in their lives.

These mathematics are terrifying, but they are not my focus here. Behind the spectacle of sums and figures is a broader background that asks different questions: while we’re busy learning law, medicine, or whatever it may be, what lessons are we internalising simply by taking on massive loans? In other words, what are the existential economics of student debt? And how does it play into the global machinations of capital?

At last year’s Left Forum in New York, the prominent Marxist theorist David Harvey spoke at length about the experience of debt – especially as incurred from student loans – under late capitalism. At one point, he offered a chilling reflection: “There is no future, because I’ve already spent it.” On the one hand, this is a purely pragmatic statement: by choosing further study, we are knowingly inscribing our path within certain parameters. For many of us, and to borrow the market jargon within which university education is often framed, the cost is worth the investment.

But at a different level, Harvey’s words describe the creeping malaise that graduates-to-be know all too well: as the ‘Real World’ looms over the horizon, what we sense is not so much possibility as panic. The Kafkaesque irony here is that with record numbers enrolling in tertiary education across industrialised countries, bachelor’s degrees have never been so vital for employability, and yet they guarantee less than ever before. Moreover, whilst our career options may open up in some respects, the pressure of impending repayments restricts our choices to those that will make us money – and fast. Studies show that graduates with higher student debt are more likely to choose high-salaried jobs over lower-paid ‘public interest’ work such as teaching or community services, not to mention the creative arts.[1] And thus, the vicious cycle of accreditation, debt, and entrapment in the competitive labour market is established.

Barbara Ehrenreich has referred to the existential effect of this cycle as the ‘fear of falling’ – the anxiety experienced by a middle class whose professional standing has been bought from costly educational institutions, to which they remain bound by repayments over the long term. Jeffrey Williams goes so far as to argue that student debt fundamentally redefines our sense of self-worth as ‘lack’: “Education provides value-added to the individual so serviced, in a simple equation: you are how much you can make, minus how much you owe” [my emphasis].[2] Furthermore, this all bears consequences for mental health – multi-national research links long-term debt to higher instances of psychotic disorders, depression, drug dependence and suicide.

Debt shapes how we understand the world and our place within it. It “teaches us that the primary ordering principle of the world is the capitalist market, and that the market is natural, inevitable and implacable.”[3] It goes without saying that this inevitably comes to circumscribe our relationship to the university. Rather than a ‘public good’, tertiary study becomes a consumer service, a pipeline to employment, and a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Where once universities might have stood as bastions of critical research and civic engagement, they are about to be drawn further into the all-but-hegemonic market logic of late capitalism.

That’s not to say there’s no room to resist. In the US, where student debt has hit staggering heights, debt became a central rallying point of Occupy Wall Street. Strike Debt!, the movement that continues this struggle, argues that far from being politically neutral, debt is a disciplining tool employed by the wealthy elite to exploit and render docile ‘the 99%’. Using a combination of direct action (cancelling random individuals’ debt through crowdfunding) and raising awareness via protests and reading groups, Strike Debt! chapters are spreading rapidly across North America.[4]

When we talk about student debt, we’re not only talking about repayments that will haunt us for decades to come. We’re also talking about our sense of self, of society, of the sort of world that we’re working to create. We are now at a critical juncture in terms of being heard not just on how much we want to pay, but how we want to live. 

Originally published by the University of Queensland monthly student newspaper Semper Floreat.

[1] Rothstein, Jesse and Cecilia Elena Rouse. 2011. ‘Constrained after college: Student loans and early-career occupational choices.’ Journal of Public Economics 95(1-2):149-163.
[2] Williams, Jeffrey. 2009. ‘The Pedagogy of Debt.’ In The Edu-Factory Collective (eds), Toward a Global Autonomous University. New York: Autonomedia, pp 89-96.
[3] Williams. ‘The Pedagogy of Debt.’
[4] See for more, including their Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, available in full online.


Fern Thompsett is a UQ graduate of anthropology and a co-founder of the Brisbane Free University. See


Join us for a panel discussion on student activism and the Bankstown Occupation on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 10:30am at Bankstown Campus.

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