Ministers should not choose research projects

Senator Kim Carr has been around forever, and knows what questions to ask in Senate Estimates. And yesterday he got the Australian Research Council to reveal that, last year, then education minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 humanities grant recommendations. So far as we know, this hasn’t happened since Brendan Nelson was minister in the middle of the last decade (Gideon Haigh tells that story well).

As with the Nelson intervention, Birmingham’s decision has prompted outrage. The Australian Academy of the Humanities says that “this interference is entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry.”

Birmingham’s response is, in effect, that the rejected projects are not worth funding. On Twitter, he says “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.'”

He could have picked several other examples: “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms”, “music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city” or “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950”.

But that Australian taxpayers were probably not going to get value for money from these very niche projects is not the same as an argument for rejecting an ARC recommendation. Read More »

When can domestic undergraduates be charged full fees?

This post was revised in June 2021, including legal changes introduced by the Job-ready Graduates legislation.  


‘Full fees’ is a term used in Australia as an implied contrast with students who pay a student contribution, a price-capped student charge. A student contribution is usually combined with a tuition subsidy called a ‘Commonwealth contribution’. The two contributions together are the overall funding rate for a ‘Commonwealth supported student’.

‘Full fee’ means that there is no government subsidy and the student pays all the provider charges. These fees are not price capped, although there is a price floor for international students. 

A ‘full fee’ should be distinguished from an upfront fee, which is paid by students who are not eligible for a HELP loan. For domestic students most full fee courses can be financed via a FEE-HELP loan. However students can in some contexts receive a tuition subsidy but have to pay student contributions upfront. This applies to permanent residents and many New Zealand citizens. 

About 6 per cent of subjects taken by domestic undergraduates are full-fee paying. The simple explanation for this is that domestic undergraduate students in public universities pay student contributions rather than full fees, while undergraduates in private universities and non-university higher education providers pay full fees. However, there are exceptions in both cases, sometimes at the unit of study (subject) level rather than the course.

In what follows, all statutory references are to the Higher Education Support Act 2003.

Entitlement to Commonwealth support at a public university

Universities have significant discretion in advising domestic students that they are Commonwealth supported: section 36-5. 

A domestic student is an Australian citizen, a New Zealand citizen, a permanent visa holder or a permanent humanitarian visa holder: Schedule 1, Dictionary.

Generally, domestic undergraduates enrolled in a Table A university (commonly known as public universities, although including the two Catholic universities, ACU and from 2021 Notre Dame) must be enrolled as a Commonwealth supported student: section 36-30(1). Exceptions to this are discussed below. 

Once a student is a Commonwealth supported student, he or she can be charged a student contribution but cannot be charged another tuition fee: section 169-15(1).

If a student is not Commonwealth supported they must pay the tuition fee set by the provider: section 169-15(2). 

Becoming a Commonwealth supported student creates an on-going entitlement for that course, unless one of the exceptions below becomes relevant: section 36-25(1).

Read More »