University fees not a deterrent

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The introduction of university tuition fees in Australia, under a scheme close to the one planned for Britain next year, has not deterred students from higher education, vice-chancellors will be told today.

At a conference on the impact of fees, sponsored by The Independent, Canberra University's deputy vice-chancellor, Meredith Edwards, will reveal that charges for teaching have not reduced demand for places or put off poorer students.

However, Professor Edwards will issue a strong warning on the danger of "tinkering" with a fees scheme once it is running.

The experience of Australia, which introduced income-contingent charges for university teaching in 1989, strongly influenced the Dearing Committee, whose report in July recommended the charging of fees in British universities.

The British government plans to bring in means tested tuition fees from October 1998, to be paid after graduation when graduates' income reaches a certain level.

Graduates will be expected to pay around a quarter of the cost of a degree course, likely to total around pounds 1,000 for each year of study.

Professor Edwards, a member of the committee which recommended higher education charges in Australia, will tell the London conference, organised by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, that the Dearing Committee "got it largely right".

Despite fears in the UK, including concerns expressed by backbench Labour MPs that fees will reduce access for some students, a survey of Australian school students found that out of 17 factors which might affect a decision not to go to university, charges rated 13th overall.

However, Professor Edwards will warn revising the scheme to increase charges, lower the income threshhold at which graduates have to begin repayment or allow universities to charge top-up fees. Such moves, introduced in Australia, could cause uncertainty and potentially hit enrolments, she will say.