Should high-earning athletes pay HECS?

Australian artist Ben Quilty




The behaviour and performance of our elite athletes over the past 12 months has caused many to question the Government’s financial investment in sport.

Most recently, multi-award winning artist Ben Quilty has sparked debate on the topic, suggesting that professional athletes should be obliged to pay back the cost of their training.

At the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), athletes receive around $30,000 worth of publicly-funded development and resources.

However, unlike university students, they don’t have to pay back the debt when their income eventually surpasses a specified threshold.

Nope. They get their training for nothing.

Quilty, one of Australia’s most prominent painters, first mentioned the idea in his acceptance speech for the 2011 Archibald Prize.

He elaborated on his proposal in a Fairfax op-ed last week:

My Melbourne mate on radio argued lawn bowlers couldn’t make a living after competing at the Olympics and therefore shouldn’t have to repay any debt to the rest of us. I gently pointed out I didn’t go to art school to make money, and that school teachers sure as hell weren’t making much from their full HECS-incurring degree and years of hard, thankless work in the education system.

Surely if Eamon Sullivan and James Magnussen studied for nothing, then my little boy’s school teacher Ms O’Rourke should also have received education for free?

Should our elite athletes make a financial contribution to their training?

Unsurprisingly Quilty has faced some backlash for his views, and a number of politicians have shut down his attempts to have the proposal seriously considered.

But he isn’t lacking support.

Professor John Bloomfield, whose 1973 sports plan led to the establishment of the AIS, agrees that a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) model should be implemented, requiring professional athletes to pay up only when – or indeed if – they earn enough money after they leave the Institute.


”Sportspeople who earn a lot of money should pay some back… I think the government would end up putting in more money if they knew they were going to get some of it back,” he told The Age last year.

This view was contradicted by the Australian Sports Commission:

”We must remember that the vast majority of our Olympic athletes are amateur,” a commission spokesman said.

“Further, it’s an inaccurate comparison … Through elite sports funding, we are developing athletes’ ability to compete internationally – they are not studying to develop employable skills.”

Kate Ellis

Another argument against the HECS proposition is that elite sportspeople differ from other professions when they represent Australia internationally; that they figuratively pay back their training by ‘doing it for their country’ and facing the enormous pressure that comes hand-in-hand with fame.

In 2009, then-Federal Minister for Sport Kate Ellis highlighted that many of these athletes do make an invaluable contribution to sport during and after their professional careers, by providing inspiration as role models, as coaches and through charity work.

From The Punch:

For those who do achieve great success – I believe that they deserve the rewards that come with it, including the financial ones, and I think that the majority of Australians – even those who think sport is just a game – would agree with that.

However, I also understand how many Australians, who take pride in their athletes, may also have an expectation that those who have benefited from taxpayer funded resources and support and as a result, become very financially successful, should also give back to sport.

Further to Ellis’ point, other top professionals who represent their country are required to give back financially, regardless of success.

As Ben Quilty highlights, prolific artists who compete in prizes and exhibit work on a national and international level are required to pay for any professional tertiary training they undertake, in addition to tax from prizes won.

Likewise, an Australian doctor is obliged to pay HECS for their numerous years of university study, even if they eventually discover the cure for cancer and receive international acclaim.

Do you think a HECS-like system should be applied to elite athletes?