‘Free’ public education costs as much as $100,000 in parts of Australia, report finds

<span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Experts are calling for greater government investment in public education as a new report suggests parents could spend up to $100,000 putting a child through the state school system.

The Futurity Investment Group cost of education index found the costs associated with a government education in Melbourne can reach $102,807, which was 17% above the national average of $87,528, making it the most expensive city for public schooling.

Though public schools don’t charge mandatory fees, the survey asked parents about the other costs that can be involved in schooling, including voluntary student contributions, electronic devices, uniforms and tutoring.

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Kate Hill of Futurity Investment, which offers loans for educational expenses, said the figures proved there was “no such thing as a free education” in Australia. She said the total cost of education had risen at nearly double the rate of inflation over the past decade.

Canberra ($77,002) and Brisbane ($80,419) had the lowest government school costs.

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“School fees, outside tuition, school camps, transport, uniforms, electronic devices and sports equipment are demanding a far greater share of the family budget than in the past,” Hill said.

“It can be a real struggle for some parents already dealing with spiralling cost of living hit with these costs all at same time.”

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Hill said there had been a “real acceleration” in the past two years of outside tuition, exacerbated by greater need for assistance over Covid lockdowns and competition to access specialist schools with entry requirements.

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Sydney was Australia’s most expensive city for an education in the independent school sector, the survey found. The total cost was forecast at $357,931 from 2023, 19% higher than the national average of $300,233.

Canberra topped the list for Catholic education – with the costs projected to be $197,667, largely due to outside tuition outpacing school fees at $2,979 compared with $2,781 a year.

The cost of education in regional and remote Australia mostly lagged behind urban areas, excluding New South Wales.

The Greens spokesperson on schools, Penny Allman-Payne, said parents were being asked to “dig deeper and deeper” into their pockets due to decades of underfunding of public schools.

“This means worse outcomes for public school students and widening inequality between the richest and poorest … public education needs to be genuinely free,” she said.

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Dr Ange Fitzgerald, a professor in education at RMIT, said the findings revealed a disparity in access between regional and urban areas.

“It speaks to the lack of support mechanisms now in place … we need to flatten out this inequity,” she said.

“It’s hard in regional areas to even get access to musicals, extra sport … kids might be interested but not have access to a teacher who can assist.”

The chief executive of the Smith Family, Doug Taylor, said as the cost-of-living crisis deepened, families were finding it harder to afford what their children needed to be fully engaged at school.

“No parent wants to make the choice between a textbook for their child or a meal on the table,” he said. “Or to pay for a laptop or cover the rent for the month.

“While we appreciate the complexity for governments in making the right investments in a challenging economic environment, we also urge people to think about … the long-term effect of missing out on critical educational opportunities.”

Victoria’s education minister, Natalie Hutchins, said families were being assisted through funding tutors in schools, relief and breakfast programs, covering course material costs for VET classes and with free school camps.

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education said there were “no fees” to access the required curriculum at public schools and $1.41bn was being offered to help students overcome educational disadvantage.

“We are supporting NSW families with a range of cost-of-living measures totalling around $850 in savings per child … this includes $150 worth of vouchers to help pay for school supplies like school uniforms, shoes, bags, textbooks and stationery,” they said.