HELP remissions and COVID-19 university course changes

Last week I published a blog post on the financial dangers posed by the COVID-19 crisis starting prior to the census date for each subject. It is a critical date for universities. They get no Commonwealth or student contributions for subjects dropped prior to the census date.

As Stephen Matchett reported in Campus Morning Mail yesterday, social media talk about dropping subjects is still at high levels. One of the reasons, that unemployment income support benefits would be more generous than student benefits, seems to have been fixed in Parliament yesterday. Although I think students are better off finishing their course on schedule if they can, we should expect higher drop-outs than usual prior to the census date.

I am also hearing reports of international students heading home before the census date because of family pressure. They might also leave because they can no longer support themselves due to the collapse of the student labour market. Due to an extraordinary new power to widen social security eligibility some international students might temporarily receive benefits, but I think entitlements are too unclear to change short-term behaviour.

If these drop-outs are happening at any scale then, except for the universities on trimesters that are already past their first census date, then serious higher education financial problems are very close, as universities will have to scale back their expected Commonwealth-supported student revenue and international student fee income for the year.

Another danger lurks past the census date. Although Commonwealth funding is safe after the census date, students still have some grounds for refunds, which in practice usually means the university pays the government the student’s HELP debt for the affected subjects. The student’s HELP debt is then reduced by a corresponding amount.

Under section 36-21 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, a student is eligible for this if there are circumstances that are a) beyond the student’s control; and b) do not make their full impact on the person until after the census date; and c) make it impracticable to complete the requirements for the unit. (There is a similar provision for domestic full-fee students in section 104-30 of HESA 2003.)

What these criteria mean in practice is explained in more detail in the Administration Guidelines 2012. The course-related sections are:

  • course related circumstances. For example, where the provider has changed the unit it had offered and the person is disadvantaged by either not being able to complete the unit, or not being given credit towards other units or course.

A person is unable to complete the requirements for a unit if the person is unable to:

  • undertake the necessary private study required, or attend sufficient lectures or tutorials or meet other compulsory attendance requirements in order to meet their compulsory course requirements; or
  • complete the required assessable work; or
  • sit the required examinations; or

complete any other course requirements because of their inability to meet (a), (b) and (c) above.

An example that might fit these criteria is that the university takes an on-campus course online but the student lacks the IT needed for fully online study. Students who rely on libraries or other public spaces that are now closed, or will soon close, to successfully complete their work might also have grounds for getting their money back.

Universities assess claims for refunds or HELP remissions in the first instance. If unsuccessful, students can take their case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Most of these appeals are rejected by the AAT because, despite the difficulties in their life, the student could have acted prior to the census date.

Students at the trimester universities that moved online after the census date might have the strongest claims for refunds or remission of their HELP debts. But although semester universities have announced a transition to online study, many have paused teaching in the week before the census date to implement that decision. Students might argue that they weren’t able to assess the online version of their subjects prior to the census date.

At least a couple of universities have extended their census dates to let students experience online classes first. That will weaken any future case those students might have for remission of their HELP debt. But it lengthens the nerve-racking wait to see how many students are left after the census date.




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