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The higher education reforms will give parents and students more options

By Brendan Nelson - posted Tuesday, 10 June 2003

John Dawkins must be smiling. When he introduced the HECS system in 1989, the federal Labor education minister was confronted by demonstrators carrying coffins symbolising the "death" of higher education. Fourteen years later the sector has doubled in size, and with it the proportion of Australians with a university qualification.

The placards have been dusted off as protesters again attack changes essential to the future of a diverse, internationally competitive higher education sector.

Australia's 38 publicly funded universities are on a collision course with mediocrity. The case for reform rests on two incontrovertible truths. The first is that universities need access in the longer term to more money. The second is that money is only half the problem.


The Howard government's reform package delivers on both. At its heart is $1.5 billion in new money for our universities - $10.6 billion over the next 10 years.

Though governance reform, more funding for regional campuses, increased university places, living scholarships for students, major increased resourcing for quality teaching and four new centres of excellence comprise the bulk of the package, debate has focused on student contributions.

The university leadership argued for fee flexibility. This will create not a two-tiered but a 38-tiered system.

Labor's education spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, has told families that their children will not be able to afford to attend university. Parents, she claims, must start saving while their children are babies. This is outrageous behaviour on her part.

The facts are these. HECS remains. This is the interest-free loan scheme introduced by John Dawkins. Graduates, instead of beginning to pay back at $24,365, will not have to pay back their contribution until earning $30,000. Instead of universities being locked into charging students one of the three HECS rates according to their courses, they will set their own HECS charge from zero to an upper limit in four ranges.

Some universities have said their fees won't change. Some have said they will lower their fees in some courses. The 7 per cent of students training as doctors, dentists, vets or lawyers face potentially the largest increases, but the most their HECS contribution could possibly increase by is $2000 a year - paid back only when working in their mostly highly paid careers.


At the same time the package ensures those training as teachers and nurses (14 per cent of students) will pay not a cent more in HECS.

Students will have greater choice and be able to make informed decisions about which course and institution will offer them the best value for money.

The option of paying HECS upfront exists (as it always has). Contrary to the claims by those running the scare campaign, it remains just that - an option.

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This article was first published in The Age on 5 June 2003.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson is a former federal Minister for Education, Science and Training and is the Liberal Member for Bradfield (NSW).

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