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What do TAFE students pay? A review of charging policies in Australian vocational education and training

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27 October 2003

ISBN 1 920895 07 8 print; 1 920895 08 6 web

Description

The current, various policies for fees and charges in the public vocational education and training (VET) system in each state and territory are the focus of this report. It finds that due to a host of reasons there is little to no consistency to fees and charges across Australia, and many variations between public VET providers within the same state and territory. Implications arising from this finding include the difficulty to analyse the impact of fees and charges on student participation, and the difficulty for students to compare course costs between institutions. Additionally, if a nationally consistent policy for fees and charges was introduced, it should be developed from a set of agreed principles.

Summary

Executive summary

This report maps the current policies on fees and charges in the vocational education and training (VET) sector in each state and territory of Australia. The purpose of this study was to identify the scope of these policies and the extent to which they are uniformly applied to institutes in receipt of public funding within each jurisdiction. The study also aimed to identify fee exemption policies and discuss the extent to which students receive exemptions. The report discusses the extent to which there are 'hidden' fees and charges that are not regulated by state and territory governments, such as student fees for on-line delivery, amenities and services fees, materials fees, fees for assessment of recognition of prior learning assessments, and charges to employers and enterprises.

The research questions are:

  • What are the current policies on fees and charges for VET courses in each state and territory?

  • To what extent are these policies consistently applied to VET providers?

  • To what extent are students exempt from fees?

  • What fees and charges imposed by VET providers are outside of the government's policy framework (that is, not subject to regulation)?

  • To what extent are fees and charges likely to differ between courses and institutes?

  • Is it necessary to undertake a more comprehensive survey of fees and charges in VET, and if so, what would be the research questions for such a study?

Data for the project were collected in three stages. The first stage was to gather information on student fees and charges from published documents and web sites. In the second stage, state and territory government officials with expertise in this area were contacted. The government officials filled in gaps in the research and reviewed drafts of the report relevant to their jurisdiction. The third stage of the project was to compare the fees and charges for the same course at different institutes. The data for these comparisons were obtained by speaking to administrative staff and course convenors at individual institutes.

Findings

VET charging policies

Students face three main types of fees and charges:

  • tuition

  • non-tuition

  • miscellaneous

All states and territories except the Northern Territory implement policies covering tuition fees (although in New South Wales this fee is called an administration charge). A few jurisdictions have policies covering non-tuition and miscellaneous fees. These policies apply to technical and further education (TAFE) institutes in all states as well as publicly funded training providers.

Students suffering financial disadvantage are either exempt from tuition fees or pay a substantially discounted fee in all states and territories. An estimated 20?30% of VET students receive fee exemptions or concessions, although it is higher in some states and territories. Tasmania reports that 45% of TAFE students receive concessions and in New South Wales, the current rate of exemptions is over 50%. In effect, there are two distinctive fee regimes in the public VET system, depending on the characteristics of the student.

It is impossible to determine the tuition fees faced by any student in most jurisdictions as the final course cost depends on the number of training hours. As the training hours vary between students, courses and institutes, a separate fee is usually calculated for every individual VET student, at the time of enrolment. New South Wales is the only exception which has a flat fee per level of course. Assuming that a student is undertaking the same number of contact hours, and excluding non-tuition costs from an average fee—to cater for the fact that South Australia has none—the annual tuition fee across states and territories falls within the following ranges:

  • full-time (540 hours): $260–$810 (nil to $441 concession)

  • part-time (215 hours): $150–$323 (nil to $150 concession).

As an estimated 90% of VET students are enrolled on a part-time basis, the latter fee is more typical of the tuition costs faced by VET students.

In addition to tuition fees, students in all states except South Australia face non-tuition fees and costs imposed at the discretion of the provider.

The most significant 'hidden' cost is the cost of materials and resources consumed during the course. These costs are specified by the course provider and vary between courses, between institutes and between the same courses offered by different institutes. In Western Australia, these costs range from nil to $2788 per year, depending on the course. In South Australia, these costs are included in the state-mandated tuition fee, which is capped at $1200 per year. In other states and territories, information about these costs is not publicly available.

In Western Australia, 'hidden' non-tuition costs comprise, on average, around 40% of the total costs faced by VET students. If this is typical of other states and territories, in all jurisdictions except South Australia, the total cost borne by VET students is likely to be, on average, two-thirds higher than the tuition fee specified by government policy.

Total student fees

Although the formula for charging tuition fees is determined by government in all jurisdictions except the Northern Territory, the total tuition fee paid by the student will depend upon the following factors:

  • the status of the student (concessional or standard enrolment)—in all jurisdictions

  • the number of training hours—in all jurisdictions except New South Wales

  • the level of the course—in New South Wales and South Australia

  • the field of study—in South Australia.

The New South Wales system of charging a flat tuition fee per level of course is the most transparent of all the funding policy frameworks because the tuition fee paid does not vary according to the number of hours of training. The main factor influencing the total fees and charges paid by students outside of New South Wales is the number of training hours determined by the institute. Hours of training for the same course vary between institutes as a result of:

  • minor differences in total hours of tuition for core units of competence

  • major differences in the range of elective units offered within each course.

For example, the number of training hours delivered for one course of study—a Certificate Level 1 in Hospitality (Kitchen Operations)—ranges from 130 hours in one institute to 245 hours in another institute within the same state.

The most significant non-tuition cost faced by students is for course materials—resources consumed during the conduct of the course—and the mandatory purchase of tools of trade (equipment which remains in the student's personal possession). In South Australia, materials costs are included in the centrally mandated fee schedule, and providers are prohibited from charging additional fees for course materials apart from tools of trade (which can be a significant cost in some courses). Fees charged for non-tuition costs, such as course materials and tools of trade, appear to be relatively similar between institutes, varying according to the type and quality of the tools of trade required.

Issues for policy and research

The lack of information about the current system of VET fees and charges makes it difficult to analyse the impact of fees and charges on student participation. The absence of publicly available information about total course costs means that potential students have no capacity to compare the cost of courses between institutes. These problems could be addressed if institutes were required to publish course costs (both tuition and non-tuition) on a central database—such as a website.

While the average cost of undertaking a VET course is usually modest, the cost of undertaking some courses are very high, particularly for courses requiring expensive materials or tools of trade. For example, non-tuition costs in one course in Western Australia are $2788 per year. Given that high cost VET courses are a small proportion of total VET provision, it should be feasible for governments to provide additional funding to make the cost of these courses more comparable to the average total cost of other VET courses. To implement such a policy change, governments would need to take steps to regulate the range of 'hidden' non-tuition costs currently imposed in most VET courses in all jurisdictions except in South Australia.

There is no consistency in the fee regimes across Australia and there are many variations between institutes within the same state or territory. As all states and territories except New South Wales calculate tuition fees at an hourly rate (where the number of training hours is determined by institutes) and all institutes are free to charge additional non-tuition costs, it is impossible to determine the total fee paid by a VET student anywhere in Australia without collecting data at the institute level. Even then, students enrolled in the same course in the same institute could be paying different tuition fees owing to different hours of enrolment.

If a nationally consistent policy for VET fees and charges were to be introduced, it should be developed from a set of agreed principles such as:

  • maximising access to VET courses, particularly at the foundation levels

  • providing a transparent and simple fee structure for students

  • maximising access to VET courses for students from disadvantaged social groups.

Given the increasing level of student movement between the VET and higher education sectors, it may be timely to consider ways of making VET fees and charges more consistent with the national fee regime for higher education as well.

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