Enrolments of students opting to pay full fees for university courses in Australia have increased sharply this year.
The conservative administration has slashed spending on universities and removed Labor's prohibition on charging full fees to Australian undergraduates. Institutions are increasingly reliant on fees and other non-government income.
Overall, the number of students paying the full cost of their tuition at a public university jumped by 14 per cent this year, to more than 88,000. Enrolments of foreign students, who comprise the great majority of fee-payers, rose by 12 per cent and domestic postgraduate numbers by 15 per cent.
But the biggest increase has been a startling 117 per cent rise in the number of Australian undergraduates willing to pay fees of up to Aus$25,000 (Pounds 10,100) a year. Although critics claim that these are "thick but rich" Australians who could not win a place on academic merit, the evidence suggests a growing number are graduates taking a further undergraduate course to improve their employment prospects.
The Howard government allowed universities to charge local students full fees in 1998 but capped the total at 25 per cent of enrolments in any one course.
Despite widespread opposition to the scheme from student and academic groups, almost 800 full-fee undergraduates enrolled in 1998. This year the number more than doubled to 1,700. Most of the money raised goes to meet the costs of tuition but their enrolment also eases the demand for university places, which almost always exceeds the number of government-subsidised places.
Universities have responded to the excess demand by enrolling more students than the quotas set by the education department. This year, over-enrolments are likely to exceed 52,000, a 13 per cent rise on 1998, raising concerns that, with over-crowded lecture theatres, tutorials and libraries, academic standards will fall.
In the past, institutions were penalised if they accepted more students than their quotas but, in an apparent effort to get them to enrol additional numbers at marginal cost, the government last year agreed to pay Aus$2,550 for each one over-enrolled.
Student demand is also clearly being met by the creation of full-fee places. Figures released by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee show the rise in fee-paying student enrolments represents more than 70 per cent of the overall increase in the student load.
The income raised has also helped reduce the proportion contributed by government. On average, only 56 per cent of universities' total revenue comes from the state.
Federal funding per student is down to Aus$12,000 a year compared with Aus$13,000 when Labor first returned to power in 1983.