In one of its many position papers advocating fee deregulation, the Group of Eight (Go8) universities inadvertently let out of the bag just how affordable free education is.

In “No such thing as a free degree”, it calculated that the total additional funding required to fund free education between 2014 and 2030 is $132.8 billion.

It might sound a lot, but at $8.3 billion a year, it is less than the annual cost of state and federal mining subsidies.

The Go8 argued that free education would require the doubling of international student fees and the halving of total enrolments.

Actually, funding could come from many places: a modest increase to the corporate tax rate, which has plummeted from 49 percent in 1986 to 30 percent today; a reduction in the defence budget, which enjoys real increases every year; or, as flagged above, the abolition of mining subsidies.

The main beneficiaries of higher education are not students, but corporations that need skilled workers to generate profits. HECS/HELP is a double tax, and a regressive one. Whether you’re a graduate in a low-paid community sector job or a high-flying executive, you still owe the same HECS debt, as well as paying income tax (although executives tend to have ways of minimising the latter).

Despite this, the government is not willing to fund education properly.

That’s true of both Labor and Liberal governments. Public funding per student fell from 90 percent of total cost in 1985 to 42 percent in 2011. Student fees have increased significantly in that time. Universities – run by vice-chancellors on salaries in the range of $1 million a year – want more money and will sting students to get it.

It’s easy to mock Christopher Pyne, who got a free education yet is now launching the biggest attacks on students in a generation. But Labor has offered no alternative to fee deregulation. The party doesn’t advocate an increase in university funding. And despite the celebration of Gough Whitlam’s legacy, no Labor politician has come close to suggesting we bring back free education.

Bringing back free education would certainly be swimming against the tide of neoliberalism.

But it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened. Germany had a period of free education before it was abolished. After a campaign against fees, and a public outcry including mass demonstrations, free education was reintroduced. The last German state retaining fees, Lower Saxony, scrapped them this year.