Labor vow to axe top-ups

March 19, 2004

Australia's Labor opposition has warned universities that it will ban top-up fees and full-fee places for Australian students if it wins this year's federal elections.

Under last December's changes to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, introduced by the conservative government of John Howard, universities will be able to increase fees by up to 25 per cent from 2005.

Nine universities have so far decided to take up this option, and most of the other 30 are expected to follow.

Jenny Macklin, Labor's deputy leader and education spokeswoman, said abolishing full-fee places and restricting Hecs charges to the current levels was a "very, very high priority".

But Ms Macklin said universities would not be worse off as a Labor government would boost federal spending on higher education by A$2.4 billion (£992 million) over the next four years.

She said these decisions would be among the first to be implemented if Labor took office.

Labor has a clear lead over the conservatives in the latest polls.

If the Labor party wins, vice-chancellors would have to abandon their user-pays schemes and scrap the bureaucratic arrangements their staff will have put in place. They have urged Ms Macklin to allow them a transition period.

A decision on when a Labor administration would impose the bans depends on the election date and whether Parliament could be recalled in time.

An October election might provide sufficient leeway for key elements of the government's reforms to be overturned this year - and all the work universities have carried out in preparation for 2005 to be undone.

Ms Macklin has so far ruled out any transition arrangements, other than allowing students who are currently enrolled and paying full tuition fees to complete their courses.

She said that if Labor won, it would spend an extra A$800 million on higher education on top of the A$1.6 billion promised by the Coalition government over the next four years.

"Under Labor, there will be no fee deregulation and we will reverse the Hecs fee hike," she said.

"The third major priority is that we will introduce full indexation so that universities get the funding to deliver high-quality education and ensure that commonwealth grants keep up with rising costs."

These high-priority decisions would be implemented as soon as possible, Ms Macklin said. "I've made that very clear to the vice-chancellors. They know that we intend to introduce indexation at the same time so they are not worse off," she added.

Labor would also establish a A$450 million fund, Universities in the 21st Century, to provide incentives for institutions to change the way courses are taught and increase collaboration, she said.

On top of the additional indexation grant money, Labor would also provide more than A$300 million for extra student places. These would be introduced gradually over the next four years so that by 2008, 20,000 new places would be added each year.

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