The Australian government is expected to introduce legislation this year that will allow the nation's 38 public universities to add top-up fees to the tuition charges imposed under the higher education contribution scheme.
The scheme was introduced in 1989 by the then-Labor government, but the charges were limited to 25 per cent of the average cost of a course, with the government paying for the remainder.
An interest-free, deferred loan system allows students to put off repaying the fees until they graduate and are earning a decent wage. What they owe - and it is now approaching $10 billion (pound;6bn) - is then paid back via a tax surcharge until the debt is cleared over five to 15 years, depending on the course and whether students make voluntary repayments.
After the election of the Conservative government of prime minister John Howard in 1996, charges were increased and universities allowed for the first time to offer full-fee, places to Australians. But the number paying the full cost was restricted to 25 per cent of enrolments in any one course.
Education minister Brendan Nelson is expected to recommend this year that the limit on full-fee-paying students be lifted to 50 per cent. At the same time, vice-chancellors will be permitted to add top-up fees to the government-set charges.
Bruce Chapman, the academic who designed the contribution system for Labor, says the original decision to allow full fees to be charged without loans for disadvantaged students cannot be supported on economic or social grounds.
"Such an approach moves higher education away from those with the capacity to learn towards those with the ability to pay," Dr Chapman says.
"As a consequence, academic talent is wasted while at the same time there is a further entrenchment of the nexus between students' socio-economic background and their likely lifetime professional success."