Top-up fees: prudence or betrayal? 1

February 21, 2003

Michael Wise overstates the shortcomings of Australia's Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Letters, THES , January 31).

Hecs did reduce the general taxpayer's contribution to higher education, but that was the scheme's explicit purpose, not a failing. The main flaw in Hecs was that the government retained control over funding for most undergraduates. This meant universities had to cut services when costs rose faster than government subsidies. The proposal in the UK white paper for fee revenue, despite the cap, to go to universities circumvents this flaw.

The Australian experience should allay fears about the impact of fees on low-income groups. Such groups are now much more likely to attend university than when Hecs started in 1989.

The relatively high salary point at which British graduates must start repaying their debts gives them even more protection than Australian graduates.

Wise reports a survey showing that "finances" affected choice of course, university and mode of study. The survey asked about students' own financial circumstances, not government charges. The greatest effect was on choice of university and mode of study. As Hecs does not vary according to these factors, many respondents must have been referring to things that would affect them even if education were free, such as mixing study and work and ease of access to the campus.

Andrew Norton

The Centre for Independent Studies

Sydney, Australia

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