Capping self-education expenses is just dumb

The federal government's proposed $2,000 cap on the tax deductibility of self-education expenses is short-sighted, regressive and threatens Australia's longer term productivity and international competitiveness.

There is no question that the tax deductibility of self-education expenses was not designed to facilitate first class international travel. However, this was former Treasurer Wayne Swan's main argument when prosecuting his case for this tax grab.

Self-education is a critical component of sustainable economic growth. America's Career Resource Network has explained through its research that informed and considered career decisions to undertake further education lead to:

1) Higher incomes and increased tax revenues,

2) Lower rates and shorter periods of unemployment; and

3) Increased worker productivity.

To place a ball and chain around the ankles of Australians seeking to advance their knowledge base, remain up to date and at more advanced levels, undertake research, fails 'Economics 101'.

By way of a practical example, at the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA) we require our members to undertake at least 40 hours of continuing professional education every year. This education can be undertaken in a number of ways from a range of sources; however, the critical driver is to ensure public accountants maintain the highest possible standard of professional knowledge and competence. This is because Australians place their faith in their trusted adviser [assuming] they are up to date.

The impact of this short-term tax grab is not just confined to accounting. Take doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, plumbers, builders, OH&S professionals, police, anyone undertaking further education or - dare we say it - politicians.

Further, consider the implications of this imposition on the regulatory regime, not just in the accounting sphere but for so many other professions. For example, as accountants strive to meet new licensing requirements under the Government’s Future of Financial Advice reforms, increased educational standards must be met. It defies logic to impose new legislation which lifts the bar on education requirements at one level and then creates disincentives for people taking up the new challenges at another level.

To impose a blanket removal of incentives to undertake self-education will cause deep and long-lasting damage to Australia's productivity and our position in a rapidly increasingly competitive region. As the mobility of professionals increases within Asia, our young people are having to compete with their counterparts from China in staggering numbers. It is reported that China is producing more than 20 million university graduates every year.

Even putting our international competitiveness aside, the move to discourage self-education is simply not a part of the Australian persona. We are a nation of aspiration, of striving to be our very best.

Where in this proposed grab for cash to fill a deficit black hole is our positioning for excellence? When did we become so complacent that striving for mediocrity was acceptable?

Like most other Australians I, if going under the surgeon’s knife, hope and pray that my surgeon is fully equipped to do the job, with up-to-date procedural knowledge and practice; not one that may have not maintained a skills base because we have shackled their capacity for skills maintenance and training.

The analogy goes on and on: a teaching professional educating our future generations; an accountant or financial planner not able to advise a client based on lack of current compliance needs; a lawyer not up to date with new legislation etc. Where to next for the goal of ‘a smarter Australia’?

It is noble to focus on developing greater access and improved education for younger Australia. However, to do so at the cost of thousands of people not maintaining their skills base in what will ever be a competitive market, and to not encourage further studies and personal and professional development, is purely backward thinking and completely counter-productive.

Or it has simply not been thought through.

By all means narrow the application of the deduction to avoid supporting first-class travel to conferences, if that is the real aim of this proposed change in tax deductibility.

But for all the reasons outlined and more, I believe, as many others do, that by capping incentives to undertake self-education, the longer term vision of a better educated, more competitive, and smarter Australia is fundamentally under threat.

Andrew Conway is the IPA's chief executive officer. 

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