New Zealand's student loan scheme will go to mediation in the new year after the country's Human Rights Commission accepted that it may discriminate against women borrowers.
According to the New Zealand University Students Association, a woman who uses the loan scheme is likely to pay about 20 per cent more than a man for the same degree.
It says that women earn less on average than men, take time out from work to raise children and perform more voluntary and unpaid work. They therefore take longer to repay their loans and pay more in interest.
The loan scheme was introduced in 1991, after universities were permitted to set their own tuition fee levels. By June 2003, the total student debt was NZ$6 billion (£2.2 billion). The average individual loan balance was NZ$13,680.
The students' association lodged a claim with the commission in September, arguing that the loan scheme discriminates against its president, Fleur Fitzsimons, because of her sex.
Camilla Belich, the association's women's rights officer, said: "The purpose of our case is to get the government to review the loan scheme, which discriminates against pretty much anyone who isn't a white middle-class male."
If mediation to resolve the claim is unsuccessful, it will go before the Human Rights Review Tribunal. If the tribunal agrees that the loan scheme constitutes unlawful discrimination, the education minister will be required to make a formal response.