Postgraduate study in many fields is now beyond the reach of the average Australian student because of an extraordinary increase in the number and cost of fee-paying courses, according to the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations.
In a nationwide survey of universities, the council found that since 1989, when the federal government relaxed restrictions on universities charging full fees for postgraduate programmes, there has been an explosive growth -- from virtually zero to 1,000 this year.
In the past two years alone, the number of postgraduate courses for which universities charge fees has more than doubled. Women and students on low incomes have been seriously disadvantaged by the spectacular rise in fee-paying courses, the council says.
Some students can no longer afford to enrol in programmes they are supposed to complete in order to qualify for their professions. Students hoping to practise as psychologists and lawyers are among those believed to have been affected by high course fees.
The council has called for the introduction of a deferred fee-payment system. This would be based on Australia's Higher Education Contribution Scheme and would allow postgraduate students to postpone paying fees until they were employed and could afford the repayments.
The survey found that universities in 1994 were running 1,000 fee-paying courses at an average cost of $7,000 a year. This suggests postgraduates are now contributing an estimated $150 million a year to university budgets. But the rising number of full-fee courses appears to be distorting postgraduate enrolments. The council believes that more students are taking research degrees, where fees are not charged, in lieu of the others.
The report's release coincided with an announcement that the federal government had established a committee to review fees to report by mid-December. Education minister Simon Crean said it would investigate the impact on access and equity of deregulation of the postgraduate market.
If the postgraduate council is right, then access and equity have already been seriously compromised by the advent of tuition fees. Women comprise 56 per cent of undergraduates and about half of those undertaking non-research postgraduate courses.
Yet they make up only 35 per cent of students in fee-paying postgraduate courses. In business studies, where the largest number of such courses are concentrated, only 29 per cent of students are women.
Council president Oliver Simmonson said: "We will be seeking a substantial input into the review and offering our expertise and knowledge of the issues. We will, of course, also be seeking to influence the outcomes and the committee's recommendations."
* New university graduates are having to accept jobs previously done by school-leavers, according to the Graduate Careers Council of Australia. The knock-on effect is that starting salaries have plummeted. A survey of more than 75,000 new graduates has found that the median income is $25,500 a year -- or 80 per cent of average earnings.