Rowdy student protests at two Australian universities last week prevented the councils of the two institutions going ahead with plans to apply full-cost fees to home students.
The protests were the first sign that students across the country will fight hard to stop the introduction of full fees for Australians. The federal government has scrapped a ban that the former Labor government imposed on universities charging home students full fees.
Universities will be allowed to charge full fees from next year but the number of students charged will be limited to 25 per cent of enrolments in any course.
At the University of Melbourne, a council meeting called to discuss the issue had to be cancelled after a noisy group of students barred entry to the council rooms. When the vice chancellor, Alan Gilbert, tried to speak to the students he was shouted down.
"Alan Gilbert wants more fees. He wants students on their knees," the students chanted.
Professor Gilbert said after the protest had ended that he had no doubt the council would endorse the fees proposal. While he understood the students' views, he said the economic climate meant Melbourne had no choice but to introduce fee-paying places next year.
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students, Felicity Martin, warned that if the proposal was on the agenda at the next council meeting, "students will be back. We will turn up to every meeting at every university in the country where upfront fees are on the agenda until the item is removed."
The NUS also claimed a victory at the University of Technology in Sydney where the council voted to defer a decision on full fees. Students who protested outside the council meeting claimed later the university had tried to get the plan to bring in full fees adopted before students returned for the new academic year.
NUS president John Carey said the union believed the issue was of the utmost importance.
"Whichever university decides to introduce upfront fees first will come under enormous scrutiny from the student movement over the remainder of 1997 and beyond," Mr Carey said. "The decision to be the first to break 25 years of no up-front fees for undergraduates must not be taken in isolation from its effects on the rest of the university system. Any institutions that make such decisions will be repeatedly reminded of the consequences of their actions by the student movement."
The UTS council decided to set up a working party to investigate the issue, although the vice chancellor, Tony Blake, said he would have preferred the matter to be resolved so that advertising of fee-paying courses could begin. Professor Blake said the university had no option but to introduce fee-paying courses as other institutions were planning to do so.
A discussion paper presented to the council argued that the overall quality of the UTS student intake was unlikely to be reduced substantially by offering fee-paying places in selected, high-demand undergraduate courses. It suggested the university could admit school-leavers with lower-than-usual tertiary entry scores.
At Melbourne, Professor Gilbert has estimated the university could generate close to Aus$5 million (Pounds 2.5 million) next year from its full-fee regime. That sum could rise to Aus$13 million by the end of the 1990s when Professor Gilbert believes 2,000 fee-paying home students may be enrolled.