THE introduction of full fees for some Australian students next year will strengthen the nation's universities, according to federal education minister AmandaVanstone.
The minister told a conference in Melbourne that experience in the United States showed thatsignificant sources of private funding were not inimical to a strong and vibrant higher educationsystem. High levels of private and non-government public backing of universities in the US had resulted in a dynamic university sector.
The former Labor government refused to allow universities to charge Australian students full fees, although it did introduce the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which required them to pay about one-quarter of the average cost of a course. But students could defer the charge until after they graduated and repay what they owed through higher taxes.
In one of its most controversial moves, the new conservative government scrapped the prohibition on full fees this year. Now six universities have decided to offer full-fee places in 1998. Several others are considering doing the same.
How many students will take up that opportunity - at a time when demand for places is falling sharply and many universities are having difficulty filling their course quotas - is not yet clear. The question is whether anyone will want to pay up to Aus$100,000 (Pounds 45,450) for a degree from one university when the same course is available elsewhere for less than one-fifth of that sum.
The prestigious institutions are counting on their "brand name", as Melbourne University vice chancellor Alan Gilbert calls it, to attract full-fee customers.
Students enrolling at Melbourne next year will face a range of fees, although charges will depend on the capacity of faculties to attract some level of scholarship funding.
The university is also considering a system where currently enrolled Hecs-liable students could undertake voluntary accelerated or catch-up programmes on a fee-paying basis through thesummer term.
Where fees exceed the Hecs charge, only students who have missed out on a Hecs-liable place for their preferred choice are likely to apply. But Professor Gilbert also hopes to have a wide range ofprivately-funded scholarships available to attract top students.
To add to its drawing power, Melbourne will also offer full fee places to students who have part-completed a degree at anotheruniversity.
They could therefore complete two or three years of a course at the cost of the Hecs charge and then transfer to Melbourne for their final year, pay the full fee and be awarded a Melbourne degree.
However, Melbourne has faced bitter condemnation from other vice chancellors over this.
In a public denunciation, La Trobe University vice chancellor Michael Osborne described the move as "reprehensible poaching" and said it would make a mockery of degree programmes which were carefully structured in mostuniversities.