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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 January, 2004, 19:28 GMT
Five students, five systems
As the UK government narrowly wins a Commons vote on introducing variable tuition fees in England, we look at university funding in five different countries and ask how it affects students studying there. Click on the links on the right to read about them.

AUSTRALIA: HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

Tuition fees have brought sweeping changes to university education in Australia since they were introduced in 1989.

Australian student Alexandra Nikolic
Fifth year Arts and Law student Alexandra Nikolic has to work, despite receiving state benefits and a hefty loan - but she's happy with the system

Students contribute to their tuition costs by paying back a low-interest loan through the tax system once they have graduated.

Payments begin when the graduate's income hits a specified threshold (currently about 25,000 Australian dollars - 10,635/US$19,317). The proportion of their income used to pay back the fees increases as their earnings rise.

Fees are currently set centrally across different course types, ranging from A$3,680 (1,566/US$2,843) a year for humanities to A$6,136 (2,610/US$4,741) for subjects such as dentistry and medicine. But recent changes mean universities will soon be able to set their own fee levels.

Students able to pay their fees up-front at the start of their studies receive a 25% discount. Private or full fee-paying places, where students pay the full cost of tuition, have also been introduced.

State benefits are available to help cover living expenses for low-income students and those considered independent of their parents.

Participation has increased since the introduction of the system, although critics say the proportion of low-income students on the most expensive courses has decreased.

ALEXANDRA'S STORY

Alexandra Nikolic is in her fifth year studying Arts and Law at the Australian National University in Canberra.

She knows she is building up a sizeable debt, but was not able to name the amount without looking it up.

"We just accumulate a debt, which I don't think many of us think about until we graduate," she said.

I've had quite a good experience, I'm not critical at all
She will owe about A$35,000 (14,891/US$27,041) by the end of her course, but the cost did not put her off or affect the choice of subject.

"We pay it off quite slowly through our tax - I'm hoping it will be quite painless," she said.

Despite receiving state benefits to help cover her living expenses, Alexandra has had to top-up her income with casual jobs throughout her studies.

Her benefits - A$380 (162/US$294) a fortnight - cover her rent of A$125 (53/US$97) a week, but she needs the A$140 (60/US$108) she earns working 12 hours a week at a library to make ends meet.

"I think all university students have casual jobs," she said. "It definitely affects their studies, but there's not much that can be done about it."

Alexandra is eligible for state benefits because she is considered independent from her parents, a status which is achieved by earning A$15,000 (6,384/US$11,589) in 18 months. She raised the cash by working in a boarding house in the UK - although earning the money was not her main reason for going abroad.

Overall, she is positive about the system. "I've had quite a good experience, I'm not critical at all," she said, but added that there is concern that allowing more students to pay their own fees in full will make the system less fair.



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