Australia's prime minister has indicated that he supports vice-chancellors' calls for greater freedom to set tuition fees.
John Howard has promised to reconsider deregulation proposals from the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee that he had ruled out only two years ago.
Mr Howard said times had changed and that the government had to be willing to address proposals for reform. He said the tertiary education sector had to be changed and "you need a government that has the guts to do something about it".
Education minister Brendan Nelson has initiated a review of the entire higher education system and last month released the first of six discussion papers, Higher Education at the Crossroads . In response, the AVCC issued a paper setting out its vision for universities in 2020.
As well as calling for sharply increased spending on universities and proposing that all Australians should have access to post-school education - with 60 per cent completing at least one degree - the paper says universities should have the freedom to charge whatever fees they want, provided students have access to income-contingent government loans.
It sets out a number of options for universities, including the ability to impose additional fees above those set down under the present deferred-payment system. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme requires students to pay a portion of the cost of their courses via a tax surcharge on graduation. The AVCC paper says universities should have the option of charging further fees on top of Hecs, setting their own level of Hecs fees and offering full-fee places to any Australian student.
But education lobby groups and opposition parties have attacked the plans. They claim that the government's "policy backflip" would mean poor students could no longer gain access to university. The National Tertiary Education Union and the National Union of Students were also unimpressed and some vice-chancellors expressed reservations. AVCC past president Ian Chubb said he opposed the idea.
Concerned that the committee appeared to be endorsing higher fees, AVCC president Deryck Schreuder countered that the paper did not call for increased fees at all universities.