Australian vice-chancellors have endorsed tuition fees as a means of raising cash for higher education.
It is the first time the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee has accepted the principle that university funding should come from a variety of sources and that students, government and industry should all make a contribution.
The AVCC said each group should contribute "according to the proportion of the benefit which each derives from university education and research". The vice-chancellors did not say who should determine the extent of public versus private benefit that university education provides.
Students paying fees on enrolment will now be eligible to take out a loan equivalent to the charge imposed under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. The charge varies from Aus$3,500 to Aus$5,500 (Pounds 1,265-Pounds 1,987) a year, depending on the course, but students can defer repayment until they graduate and are earning, when a tax surcharge is imposed.
The conservative coalition government freed universities to set fees for non-HECS students for the first time this year. But Labor has warned that it will reverse this if it wins the next election.
AVCC president John Niland said the policy change was a means of raising the profile of higher education in the elections.
"The vice-chancellors decided they must take the opportunity of the coming election to impress on the community the critical importance of increasing the level of funding to Australia's universities to internationally competitive levels," Professor Niland said.
Students condemned the decision, saying it would do nothing to improve access to university and would lead to further privatisation of higher education.
"The AVCC is trying to prop up a regressive government policy now on its last legs," said National Union of Students president Rose Tracey. "It must be understood that whether the fee is Aus$10,000 upfront or Aus$5,000 upfront plus a Aus$5,000 loan, most Australians are not in a position to take advantage of fee-paying places."
Melbourne University vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert welcomed the decision and said he was delighted to be in accord with his colleagues on the committee.