Canberra wins top-up fight by skin of teeth

December 12, 2003

The Australian government has finally succeeded in getting some of its higher education reforms - including top-up fees - through both houses of parliament.

After six months of debate and fierce opposition from academics and students, the government was forced to accept significant amendments to the legislation - including dropping a link between university funding and labour law reform.

For the first time, universities will be able to add top-up fees to the charges imposed under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.

The government subsidises courses but students must pay between a third and a half of the cost, depending on the degree.

Universities that increase the Hecs charge by the new, government-set maximum of 25 per cent will add A$4,000 (£1,700) a year to the cost of a science degree, bringing the total cost to students for a three-year degree to about A$20,000.

Students enrolled on more expensive courses such as engineering, medicine and law face bigger rises.

Institutions will also be able to offer full-fee places to 35 per cent of Australian students enrolling on any one course - up from 25 per cent at present.

The breakthrough in pushing through reform followed a month of intense negotiations between education minister Brendan Nelson, vice-chancellors and the four independent senators who hold the balance of power in the upper house.

Dr Nelson agreed to a wide range of changes, including abandoning a plan to force universities to adopt anti-union strategies in return for A$400 million in additional funding.

He said the reform package would give universities an additional A$2.4 billion over the next five years and more than 34,000 extra Hecs places. He claimed the increase in new public funding would be close to A$11 billion over ten years.

Dr Nelson said the changes would free universities "to grow in areas of expertise", while the additional money would allow them to reduce class sizes.

Vice-chancellors' committee president Deryck Schreuder said that, while not every amendment had been achieved, the legislation offered a substantial basis for growth.

But the Labor opposition said the core of the legislation meant that Australian students would pay yet more for their degrees.

Labor education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said: "That is one thing Brendan Nelson has not given up on. The only thing he has ever really wanted is an increase in fees. That is not reform, that is just a price hike."

As well as the additional A$400 million in base funding, the government has promised an extra A$122 million over four years to support regional campuses, A$250 million non-taxable scholarships to cover education and accommodation costs, and A$188 million to support teaching and learning, including establishing a national institute for learning and teaching.

Two new loan schemes will be introduced to help undergraduates and postgraduates pay the full cost of their education, and for those who want to spend time studying overseas.

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