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No HELP: Uni students who fail half their subjects to lose taxpayer support

Under the overhaul, a student who fails half of their first eight subjects in a degree will lose access to a government-subsidised place and HELP loans. However, higher education providers will have discretion to maintain the students’ access to funding if they can demonstrate their performance was affected by exceptional circumstances.

The Department of Education, Skills and Employment estimates the change will affect about 2500 people annually.

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The crackdown is targeted at extreme examples of students enrolling in an unreasonable number of courses at multiple institutions, persistently failing and amassing extraordinary HELP debts. In one case, a person enrolled in 44 courses with 26 providers, accruing a debt of $663,000 and attaining no qualifications. Another person enrolled in 11 courses at four institutions, accruing $455,000 in debt and completing three courses.

“The lack of transparency of a student’s enrolment has allowed some non-genuine students to enrol and re-enrol at multiple providers at the same time,” Mr Tehan said.

Commenting on the newly unveiled legislation, Australian National University higher education expert Andrew Norton said Grattan Institute research had found nearly 6 per cent of students failed every subject in their first year at university.

“Many fails are avoidable if disengaged students leave before the HELP census date or the usually later date to withdraw without academic penalty. The government’s legislation would put more pressure on universities to check that students are engaged, especially as they move from first to second semester,” he said.

Professor Norton said terminating consistently failing students’ enrolments would often be the right decision but the system needed to be flexible enough to distinguish students “whose chances of completing their course are genuinely low and those whose fails are due to temporary or fixable problems”.

The new measures come on top of changes made in 2018 that imposed a $100,000 limit on the HELP debt a person can accrue. The government held $66.6 billion worth of HELP debt in 2018-19, with more than 15 per cent of it not expected to be repaid.

Mr Tehan’s university funding overhaul was the subject of extraordinary criticism from Regional Education Minister Andrew Gee this week, with the Nationals MP demanding the package be changed.

In a statement on Tuesday, he said the Nationals party room had agreed the package – which was earlier this year endorsed by cabinet, including Nationals ministers – should be revised to halt fee rises for studies in mental health and social work.

Citing concerns about the impact on regional communities, Mr Gee called it a “glaring and potentially detrimental design flaw” and said the courses should move from the most expensive fee category to the second-cheapest, aligned with allied health studies.

Under the higher education package announced in June, fees for some courses will soar while others will be slashed in a bid to produce graduates for high-priority employment areas.

Mr Gee also called for changes to a $5000 tertiary access payment in response to fears it will encourage people to leave their communities to attend metropolitan universities.

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