Education Minister Jason Clare has set a debt trap for struggling university students after dramatically weakening his ‘support for students’ scheme which fails to deliver the safeguards he promised, Shadow Minister for Education Sarah Henderson has warned.

“The support for students scheme, adopted under the cover of darkness the week before Christmas, is now so weak that universities have no obligation to proactively identify and support students at risk of failing their studies,” Senator Henderson said.

“By axing the safeguards offered by the 50 per cent pass rule, Labor has set a debt trap for thousands of vulnerable students and shown a reckless disregard for the cost-of-living pressures so many young Australians are facing.

The former Coalition government’s 50 per cent pass rule protected students, failing more than 50 per cent of their subjects after enrolling in eight or more units, from leaving university with large student debts and nothing to show for it."

Under the rule, failing students who faced losing their Commonwealth supported place (CSP) could apply for an exemption on compassionate grounds or move to a restricted study plan such as part-time study or a changed course structure. As revealed in a Senate inquiry into the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023, the vast majority of students did not lose their CSP.

“Minister Clare’s claims that more than 13,000 students were ‘hit’ with the rule is a blatant misrepresentation," Senator Henderson said.

"On the evidence available, most failing students made changes to their university studies to help them succeed, as the policy intended.

“After releasing draft guidelines which were onerous and unworkable reflecting the government’s lack of consultation, Minister Clare has done an about-face and introduced a farcical ‘support for students’ scheme which fails to deliver any additional support for students.

“This is a policy shambles from a floundering minister which is why the opposition opposed the scheme from the beginning.

“Under the draft guidelines, higher education providers were required to implement a policy which ‘must include’ processes to identify and support students at risk of failing their studies including those in need of targeted literacy and numeracy support.

"The final version has been dramatically watered down, with universities now only required to publish on a website ‘information describing’ their current set of student support policies.

“Under the scheme, universities are no longer required to report on the academic outcomes of students requiring support including HECS loans accrued for failed units of study.

"There are no minimum standards of support that universities must provide including for those who are victims of sexual violence or suffer mental health challenges. The scheme has also been delayed until 1 April 2024, with reporting dates for policy outcomes pushed back to the first quarter of 2025.

“While universities have a range of policies to support students, they are not doing enough to stop vulnerable students falling through the cracks. Only 41 per cent of undergraduates are completing their four-year degree in that time, with 21 per cent dropping out altogether.

"For indigenous students, it’s much worse – the four-year completion rate is just 26 per cent while more than a third drop out.

“Labor’s scheme also does nothing to safeguard students from inadequate or bad university policies. It is all puff and no substance from Minister Clare who is not tough enough to hold the universities to account, further underlining how this government is failing to put students first,” Senator Henderson said.