James Caulfield, Canberra
The University of Canberra became the first institution to endorse implementing domestic full fees since the Nelson Review "reforms" were passed in parliament last year, after a motion put by vice-chancellor Roger Dean was passed by the university council on February 6.
The motion, passed by 10 votes to three, read: "Council is asked to endorse the proposal that the university be allowed to charge fees to domestic undergraduate students that are equivalent to the existing and future HECS rates."
The fees referred to are charged under the new FEE-HELP loans scheme, introduced as part of the federal education minister Brendan Nelson's package of reforms to higher education. A FEE-HELP student, as opposed to a regular HECS student, is allowed to repay their loan through the taxation system in the same manner as HECS, but with an additional 20% administration charge.
In his initial presentation, Dean said that while he had argued for free education leading up to the reforms being passed by parliament, the recommendation he was now putting to council was based on current circumstances.
Other justifications offered by speakers in favour of the motion were that it would "enhance access" and "increase diversity" by allowing people previously unable to get a university place to study at UC.
It was also mentioned a number of times that with the new system there is presently no obligation to pay fees up-front, and that the changes will not take place until 2005.
However, a number of council members recognised that this was in fact the "thin edge of the wedge", i.e, that these initial reforms would balloon into much larger fee changes.
One of the minority of council members to speak against the proposal argued that the case put by Dean was unconvincing and that UC's prime focus needs to be on providing quality education for the university's HECS students.
"There are many talented, hard-working students who missed out on university places this year, and it would be very disappointing for them to see students buying their way into university without regard to merit", UC Students Association president Adam Verwey said.
Verwey was also highly critical of Dean's submission to the council about the proposals.
"There's a real concern that such a serious decision could be made on the basis of what appears to be largely a three-page essay that is internally inconsistent, in some places based on false or overly generous assumption, and contains little if any information on the financial and education impacts of such a strategy", Verwey said.
The exact fee changes and number of new loan-based places are not yet decided, so the Students Association will be looking to restrict or defeat entirely the introduction of such places.
From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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