Minister tries to head off stampede over top-ups

March 5, 2004

Australian education minister Brendan Nelson has attacked the Queensland University of Technology for following the lead of the University of Sydney and considering top-up fees. The institution says that it might lose prestige if it is deemed a low-price option.

Changes adopted by the federal government in December allowed universities to raise the set Higher Education Contribution Scheme charges by up to 25 per cent from the start of next year. Sydney was the first to announce the maximum increase on all its courses. Most other members of the so-called Group of Eight research-intensive universities seem certain to follow Sydney's lead.

Dr Nelson warned universities to "think very carefully" before emulating Sydney's move. To suggest that higher Hecs charges would make a university appear more prestigious was "the most facile, ridiculous and nonsensical argument", he said.

A discussion paper produced for the QUT council predicts that all Australian universities with sufficiently strong demand from students for their courses will introduce top-up fees.

"There is a risk in adopting a lower price position as an institutional characteristic in an environment where the most prestigious universities in the country will opt for higher student fees," the paper says.

Dr Nelson named three universities that had decided either not to change the Hecs regime or to reduce the Hecs level for some courses. It was "appropriate that universities be required to think very carefully" about Hecs charges, he said.

The Labor opposition and student groups expressed amazement that the minister was criticising universities for doing what he had authorised.

His remarks also drew a rare rebuke from the Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee, which told him to mind his own business.

Chief executive John Mullarvey described the comments as unjustified.

"Decisions on Hecs levels and the consequences of any such decisions rest with individual university councils. The minister should allow our universities to get on with their business without any further political interference," Mr Mullarvey said.

But Dr Nelson said Queenslanders, and Queensland students in particular, should know that the QUT would receive an extra A$31 million (£13 million) in additional "hard-earned taxpayers' money" over the next three years.

"And if the university chooses to increase any of its Hecs charges, it needs to explain to students exactly what they will get in terms of improved quality," he said.

Dr Nelson admitted that while this was a matter for each university, there would be one definite requirement in the reforms he had introduced. Before the end of the year, every university would have to publish the minimum tertiary entrance exam score. This would be a greater test of the prestige and the quality of what was being delivered in an institution than pricing, he said.

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