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Medical grads earn top dollar, but face huge debts

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Medicine graduates have the second highest starting salary and progress to become the nation’s top income earners after 20 years in the job, according to an analysis of lifetime graduate earnings.

As the Federal Government spruiks major changes to the funding of higher education based on projections of future graduate earnings, the peak body representing Australia’s top universities, the Group of Eight Australia, has released analysis indicating that, while graduate income grows strongly in the first five years of work, the rate of increase slows thereafter.

Drawing on data from the 2011 Census, the Group of Eight reported that medical graduates earned a starting salary of $64,454, second only to engineers, on $68,175, and well above the average among all graduates of $48,888.

Across all academic disciplines, the fastest period of income growth is in the first five years following graduation, when they grow by an average of 5.7 per cent a year – with law (8.5 per cent) leading the way.

But thereafter the rate of gain moderates to an average of 2 per cent a year in inflation-adjusted terms – though still double that of workers without tertiary qualifications.

In a result that emphasises the relative value of a medical degree, however, the Group of Eight found that over an extended period the earnings of medical graduates outstripped those of graduates in all other fields, including law, engineering and IT.

After 10 years, medical graduates earned on average close to $105,000, compared with $100,000 for lawyers and around 97,000 for engineers.

After 15 years the gap had widened, with those working in medicine earning on average around $115,000, with law coming in second with an average of $105,000.

At 20 years, the average medical graduate earned $117,000, while for law it was $107,000.

But even though the G8 analysis suggests a medical degree offers the best earning potential, the AMA has expressed alarm at planned changes to the funding of higher education that could push the cost of a medical qualification up to $250,000 – a level that AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said would discourage many students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds from entering medicine.

Under the Federal Government’s plans, university fees will be deregulated from 2016, the Commonwealth’s contribution to course costs will be cut by an average of 20 per cent, and interest on student loans will be raised from the current CPI level to the 10-year Treasury bond rate (with a maximum annual rate of 6 per cent). Universities will be blocked from charging domestic students any more than they do international students.

In a forthright letter to Education Minister Christopher Pyne, A/ Professor Owler warned the changes were likely to lead to much higher medical course fees, encouraging aspiring doctors to select specialties and work locations that are better paid, exacerbating shortages in rural areas and in specialties such as general practice.

Adrian Rollins