Students who fail classes could risk losing their HECS loans

13 August 2020

University students who fail more than half of their subjects will lose access to government loans and subsidies under changes announced by the Federal Government.

The move is part of a planned overhaul of the university system, which will also result in major changes to student fees.

Here’s how it will work, and whether you could lose government support.

Which university students could lose access to HECS?

Under the latest changes, students who fail more than 50 per cent their classes after taking at least eight units will no longer be able to access a Commonwealth-supported place or a HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP loan, meaning they will have to pay the full cost of their studies upfront if they wish to continue.

The Department of Education, Skills and Employment estimates it will affect around 2,500 students each year.

Universities will be able to provide exemptions if students can demonstrate exceptional circumstances — for example, serious illness or bereavement.

Why is the Government doing this?

Education Minister Dan Tehan says the changes are aimed at preventing students with very low completion rates from racking up large debts without any qualifications to show for them.

The Minister pointed to the example of a student who started 44 courses at 26 different providers but completed none of them, and ended up with a debt of $663,000.

Federal education minister Dan Tehan addressing the media in 2019
Education Minister Dan Tehan says six per cent of students fail every subject in their first year.(ABC News: Mark Moore)

That student’s first year of study was 1991, and the Government has since imposed a limit on total HELP loans, which is currently set at just over $106,000.

“What this is designed to do is make sure that universities and students understand that they need to work together to make sure that the student is suitable for the course that they’re undertaking,” he said.

“And then to make sure that throughout their course, that they get the guidance, support and help that they need to complete their studies.”

What do students think?

The President of the National Union of Students, Molly Willmott, criticised the changes, accusing the Government of trying to “incentivise success through fear of punishment”.

“Limited access to study, financial instability, education quality, disability, and the ongoing crisis of mental health in the student body are just some of the impediments to student success,” she said.

“These are issues that are often unreported and receive inadequate support from tertiary institutions or the Government.”

The Opposition dismissed the announcement as a “frustrating distraction” from more pressing issues within the education system.

“The Government’s trying to pretend that there’s this big problem with failing students,” Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said.

“Of course students who are failing should be given the encouragement and the opportunity to succeed at university.

Alison Barnes, the president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said no extra effort was being made to prevent students failing in the first place.

“This policy provides no extra funding to support students likely to fail. No extra staff will be employed to identify and monitor students and give them the help they need,” she said.

When will these changes come into effect?

Draft legislation for the university overhaul was released for public consultation earlier this week.

It’s already proving controversial within the Government, with the Nationals demanding changes to ensure regional students are not left worse off.

Mr Tehan promised all feedback would be taken into consideration.

“We’ll continue to consult as we take this legislation through the Parliament.”

How much students can expect to pay under the changes:

Band Discipline Annual cost
1 Teaching, clinical psychology, English, maths, nursing, languages, agriculture $3,700
2 Allied health, other health, architecture, IT, creative arts, engineering, environmental studies, science $7,700
3 Medical, dental, veterinary science $11,300
4 Law & economics, management & commerce, society & culture, humanities, communications, behavioural science $14,500

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