Private students’ loan expenses ‘worse than credit cards’

Australian independent colleges also rail against inequitable consumer protection

November 28, 2019
Person swiping credit card instore

Students in Australia’s private higher education colleges face an administration fee that “exceeds the highest interest rate of any credit card in the country”, a Melbourne forum has heard.

Julie Moss, an advocate for the independent higher education sector, said the 25 per cent “tax” on government loans covering private college tuition fees was among the “glaring inequities” faced by some students.

“If governments were even to begin to look at this from a student perspective, they could not in all conscience continue imposing this loan fee,” Ms Moss told the conference of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

“If we truly want students as partners in our education system, we need to have policy settings that are fair and equitable to all students, not just the majority.”

Tuition subsidies are denied to most of the 7 per cent or so of domestic undergraduates who study outside public universities. While this has long upset private colleges, the loan fee – which public university students are spared – is a particular bone of contention.

Last year, the government agreed to remove the fee for students of private universities, in a political deal to secure support for the lowering of loan repayment thresholds. But students at non-university providers still incur the fee.

Ms Moss, a board member of Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA), made the comments as chair of a conference session entitled “Students as partners”. Student representatives told the session that an increasingly consumerist view of education was undermining the idea of partnership.

“Student representation is losing out as a result of the commercialisation of universities,” said National Union of Students president Desiree Cai. “It goes towards the idea of students as customers in this degree factory.”

Maria Garcia, a student representative at Ms Moss’ Photography Studies College, said the institution was “very involved in students’ lives. There’s a real sense of community, which is one of the most important things if we want to see students as partners.”

Ms Moss also criticised new tuition assurance arrangements proposed for students of independent colleges, under legislation currently before parliament. The bills extend the current Tuition Protection Service – an insurance scheme for international students whose colleges close down – to vocational and private higher education students.

However, the scheme will only benefit higher education students with government loans. This means students face a choice between taking out a loan and incurring the 25 per cent fee, or paying up front and relinquishing the consumer protection.

Debate on the legislation was scheduled for 28 November, but was overtaken by other business. Nevertheless it is expected to be passed as it has opposition support.

The issue is largely symbolic, given that college closures are rare. The few higher education institutions that have collapsed in recent years were undone by their vocational education arms’ involvement in a now-defunct training loans scheme.

IHEA chief executive Simon Finn said he had been in discussions with education minister Dan Tehan about the legislation, and was pleased that Mr Tehan had committed to consider further changes.

Mr Finn said that the arrangements proposed in the legislation meant that students would have different levels of consumer protection depending on their modes of payment. He said people who worked hard to pay their tuition fees up front should not face disadvantage as a result.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com  

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