Australia faces fee rises of 25%

February 6, 2004

Australia's universities face political uncertainty as they decide whether to use their imminent freedom to vary tuition fees under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.

From 2005, universities will, for the first time, be able to increase or decrease the Hecs charges set by the government.

The government has promised millions of additional dollars for higher education from 2005 and thousands of new student places.

But John Howard, the prime minister, is expected to call an election later in the year and if the Labor opposition wins, the Conservatives' reforms will be largely abandoned.

Vice-chancellors must prepare for implementing the changes, which also include new scholarship schemes, equity measures to improve access and allocation of funds to support teaching and learning - with a new National Institute for Learning and Teaching to be established.

Some universities have already shown their hand on fees. The University of Sydney has announced that it will increase its fees by 25 per cent - the maximum allowed.

This will apply to all courses other than teaching and nursing, which have been excluded by the government.

Macquarie University, also in Sydney, said last week it would reduce the fee to zero for a small number of science courses.

But the rest of the sector has yet to determine a position, although it seems certain the eight oldest research-intensive universities will follow Sydney's lead.

Students warned that they would campaign vigorously to try to prevent universities increasing fees and boosting the number of full-fee places.

Under the government's changes, universities will be able to offer up to 35 per cent of enrolments in any one course to undergraduates prepared to pay the full cost.

Only a minority of students who missed out on a Hecs place in recent years have been prepared to pay up to A$30,000 (£13,000) a year in fees.

But with demand outstripping supply - at least 25,000 students eligible to enrol in higher education are unlikely to gain access this year - the number of full-fee payers is expected to increase sharply.

Jodie Jansen, president of the National Union of Students, said the first issue to be tackled by students this year would be a campaign to prevent universities increasing Hecs charges.

Ms Jansen said the NUS national office would support local campus branches in the fight against the implementation of additional fees "every step of the way".

Students would attempt to block any moves by universities to increase fees and offer additional full-fee places, she said.

"Higher education will be the main focus in the lead-up to the federal election," Ms Jansen said.

"As well, we will be running campaigns in support of student access to healthcare and liveable incomes."

A "learning entitlement system" is to be introduced to limit to seven years the time a student can occupy a subsidised place at university.

Universities have to be ableto track students throughout their courses, and if they exceed the full-time equivalent of seven years, they must pay the cost of their courses from that point.

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