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).

Course level

In a range of circumstances a domestic student either never receives or loses their entitlement to be charged a student contribution only:

When the student started the course as an international student: section 36-30(2)(d).

When the higher education provider expects that the student will not undertake any of the course’s units of study in Australia: section 36-10(2B) (so for example an expatriate Australian could not take a subsidised online course at an Australian university).

When the course of study will be taken primarily at an overseas campus: section 36-15(1A).

When the student is in an employer-reserved place: section 36-15(1)(a).

When the student is in a course the minister has specifically declared is not Commonwealth supported: section 36-15(2)(a) (this is a legislative instrument; only applies to a Bachelor of Circus Arts at Swinburne).

When the student is in a course of a specified type the minister has declared is not Commonwealth supported: section 36-15(2)(b) (this is a legislative instrument, only made for research students).

In the last two cases, restrictions can be limited to ‘students of a specified kind’. In deciding whether to make the determination, the minister must have regard to the effects on students, and the determination must be made at least six months before the day that students are next able to commence the affected course(s): section 36-15(3) and (4). Such a determination is also a legislative instrument, which means that it can be disallowed by either house of parliament.

When the student has advised that they do not want to be a Commonwealth supported student: section 36-10(3).

When the student does not successfully complete at least half their subjects in their current course, having taken at least eight subjects in a bachelor degree or higher and four subjects in sub-bachelor qualifications. There are various special circumstances that can result in retention of subsidy rights: section 36-13.

Section 36-13 does not in itself prevent a student from continuing on a full-fee basis (without FEE-HELP: section 1041A). Under the new section 19-42, however, a student must be assessed as academically suited to undertake each subject. If the reason for subject failures was lack of academic preparation, and the student needs to repeat the failed subjects to complete the course, then section 19-42 may prevent enrolment on any basis.

However, if the student failed too many subjects for reasons not covered by section 36-13 special circumstances and which don’t go to their fundamental academic suitability  – for example not understanding the need to withdraw from subjects they no longer want to do prior to the census date – they could continue on a full fee basis. Students who get their pass rate back above 50 per cent could again be offered a Commonwealth supported place. 

An enabling course does not fall within the definition of an undergraduate course: Schedule 1, Dictionary. Therefore, as with postgraduates, a university can choose to charge full fees to domestic students in enabling courses.

Subject level 

Eligibility in some cases also applies at the unity of study (subject) level. Eligibility is denied or lost in the circumstances below:

When the unit of study (subject) does not contribute to the course of study the student is enrolled in: section 36-10(1)(b).

When the secretary of the Department of Education deems the student not to be ‘genuine’: section 36-5(5). There are some guidelines on what counts as being genuine, such as around engagement with a subject. 

With some room for discretion, when a student seeks to enrol in subjects above two full-time equivalent years of study load in a twelve month period: section 36-12. This applies to students eligible for HELP: section 36-12(1)(b), seemingly exempting permanent residents and New Zealand citizens who are not eligible for HELP. Only the excess subjects are covered by this provision. 

When permanent residents and New Zealanders will not be resident in Australia for the duration of the unit: section 36-10(2).

When the university has determined that a summer or winter school subject is full-fee (but the subject has to be available at other times): section 36-10(7).

When the subject is a work experience unit of study and the student is not currently or has not previously been enrolled in non-work experience unit(s) of study: section 36-10(6). 

A new Job-ready Graduates provision deems a student as not Commonwealth supported when the higher education provider has completed a part of the student’s request for Commonwealth assistance that the student is supposed to fill in: section 36-15(5). The purpose of this amendment is deny the higher education provider funding if they have signed students up without them knowing about it (as happened under VET FEE-HELP). However it creates other legal complexities, such as the funding status of students if bureaucratic process errors lead to breaches of section 36-15(5), and whether this inadvertently creates a loophole in the general requirement that domestic undergraduates are Commonwealth supported. 

The Job-ready Graduates legislation also inserted a new Commonwealth support denial provision for students seeking to enrol in subjects for which they don’t meet the section 19-42 academic suitability provision: section 36-10(1)(ba). However this seems redundant, as a student not meeting section 19-42 provisions cannot be enrolled at all in that subject, and therefore the issue of how to finance it does not arise.

Students enrolled outside the public university system

For domestic students who are not at Table A universities, the default entitlement to a Commonwealth supported place is reversed and they are not entitled to a Commonwealth supported place except in limited circumstances.

To get a Commonwealth supported place, students have to be at a higher education provider that has been allocated places in a ‘national priority’ area: section 30-10(4). Section 30-20 provides examples of what might be a national priority, including increasing enrolments in particular courses, increasing enrolments by particular types of persons, and increasing regional enrolments. 

The higher education provider decides which students receive a Commonwealth supported place. Once the place is allocated, the student can keep it for that course: section 36-25(1). A student in a non-Table A university can be converted during their course from full-fee to Commonwealth supported, but not the other way around.

If not Commonwealth supported, the student must pay a tuition fee unless he or she is an exempt student: section 169-15(2). Exemptions include scholarships and limited cases of units of study that are work experience in industry: section 169-20 and the Administration Guidelines. 

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