AUSTRALIAN universities have suffered a dramatic drop in applications this year, with academics and students claiming that increased tuition charges are the cause.
Vice-chancellors called for an urgent meeting with federal education minister David Kemp to discuss the situation. The Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee estimates that universities made 10,000 fewer offers of places this year than for 1997.
They argue that a sharp rise in charges under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme is deterring young Australians from enrolling at university. The government has scrapped the flat-rate HECS system where all students were charged about Aus$2,500 (Pounds 1,028) a year whatever course they were doing. There are now three charge bands: arts courses cost Aus$3,300; science and engineering Aus$4,700; and medicine, law, dentistry and veterinary science Aus$5,500.
"Prospective students have had time to understand the changes and therefore now they are saying they can't afford to go to university," an AVCC spokesman said. He said the government should review the charges as it had promised if they produced a significant decline in enrolments.
But Dr Kemp denied the linkage. He said the drop in applications was related to improved employment prospects for school-leavers and a greater variety of training options outside the university system. There was no evidence that differential HECS charges were affecting engineering or science, he said.
Universities were allowed to charge full fees for home students for the first time this year after the Conservatives lifted a ban imposed by the former Labor government.
The government had claimed that full fee-paying Australian students could generate up to Aus$900 million a year for universities.
But few universities or students appear interested. Of the 37 public universities that could have offered full-fee places, only seven have done so. Similarly, while more than 250,000 new students will be on campus in 1998, fewer than 500 will be enrolled in full-fee courses.
The National Tertiary Education Union described the government's decision to introduce full fees as a complete failure. NTEU president Carolyn Allport said the figures showed there was almost no demand.
Dr Allport said a recent report on higher education funding for the next three years showed the government had based its entire strategy on expansion of fee-paying places. Public funding was being cut on the basis that fee revenue would cover the shortfall.
The report for the 1998-2000 triennium says federal expenditure on universities will fall by Aus$200 million while the number of government-funded student places will drop by 1,700.
The report says overall university enrolments will increase by almost 6 per cent in the three years to 2000 but that this growth will come from students prepared to pay full fees. It says universities are expected to recruit an additional 30,000 foreign students plus 14,500 Australians who will all pay full fees.
"This is clearly an unrealistic target," Dr Allport said. "The cost of education in the current system can only mean that participation will fall for everyone but the very rich."
While the universities claim they are not seeking "thick but rich" students among the full-fee payers, most are prepared to admit those with tertiary entrance scores below the norm. Only Melbourne University, following strong pressure from students, has set entry standards for fee-based courses above the minimum necessary for entry to a non-fee place.