Most prospective university students feel safe in the vague notion that they can take out a “HECS loan” and subsequently won’t have to actually pay their uni fees until after they’ve graduated; but they don’t quite understand how this actually works, or how to go about accessing it. Well we’re here to help you understand the government’s Higher Education Loan Program (HELP), and its various loans and forms of assistance.
What is HELP?
The Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP, is the Federal Government’s financial assistance program for students, designed to “remove up-front cost barriers to tertiary education and training by providing income contingent loans”. The program is made up of five different loan schemes, with each one having different requirements and purposes. We’re going to go over each one and explain who can access them, and what they’re used for.
The most commonly provided type of loan by HELP, HECS-HELP loans are designed to assist students with Commonwealth assistance (eg. students with a Commonwealth-supported place in a university course). Commonwealth support means that the Commonwealth pays part of the cost of your study; however students still need to pay a “student contribution”. The HECS-HELP scheme exists to help students pay their contributions, mainly through loans, but also through a discount on upfront payments. This scheme was simply known as “HECS” prior to 2005, and is still colloquially referred to as such. There is no limit on the amount one can borrow under the HECS-HELP scheme.
Students in the past have been able to claim a 10% discount if their fees were paid upfront; however this will be removed from January 1 2017. If students can’t afford pay up front (the majority of students), then they will pay back their debt at essentially 0% interest. You can find out more on HECS-HELP debt here.
Unfortunately for some students, some courses don’t have that many Commonwealth supported places to offer, and some don’t have any at all. This means that some students are enrolled in “full fee paying places”, meaning that they receive no Commonwealth subsidisation on their study expenses, and are saddled with the full cost of their studies. FEE-HELP exists to help full fee paying students with their study costs by providing them with loans, provided that they meet the scheme’s various eligibility requirements. The FEE-HELP limit is $97,728 for most students, however for those studying medicine, dentistry, or veterinary science, the limit is $122,162.
Along with their study costs, all undergraduate students must pay a student services and amenities fee (SSAF). While this is a much smaller amount than course fees, it’s still an amount that many students may not be able to pay. SA-HELP exists to allow students to defer their SSAF payment, essentially tacking it on to whatever other HELP loan(s) they may have.
Many universities offer students the opportunity to go on exchange, and complete part of their studies overseas. While the study fees incurred during overseas studies are treated as normal and deferred under HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP, overseas study involves other costs such as airfares, accommodation, and miscellaneous travel and study expenses. OS-HELP exists to help students cover these costs by way of loans. OS-HELP has a number of eligibility requirements, all of which must be met in order for one to be eligible for OS-HELP. One OS-HELP loan can be accessed per six-month study period, and students may only access a total of two OS-HELP loans over their lifetime. Students must complete a year of full-time study before being eligible for overseas study and OS-HELP. The maximum amount one can be loaned for a six-month period under the OS-HELP scheme is $7,635 for study undertaken in Asia, or $6,362 for study undertaken elsewhere.
An offshoot of FEE-HELP, the VET FEE-HELP Scheme is designed to assist those studying higher level vocational education and training (VET) qualifications. “Higher level” means one must be studying at the diploma level or above. According to the Australian Government’s site, vocational education and training covers a rather wide range of careers and industries, including trade and office work, retail, hospitality, and technology. As with OS-HELP, the scheme has a list of eligibility requirements, which are mainly to do with the nature of your study and whether you’ve exceeded the FEE-HELP limit or not. Due to the fact that VET FEE-HELP is attached to FEE-HELP, the limit for VET FEE-HELP is the same as the limit on FEE-HELP (at time of writing that’s $97,728 for most students, or $122,162 for those studying medicine, dentistry, or veterinary science). VET FEE-HELP loans attract a 20% loan fee, however this fee doesn’t count towards one’s FEE-HELP limit.
If you’re a new student you only need to immediately familiarise yourself with the first three schemes on this list, however we recommend that you gain a thorough understanding of all five schemes so that if you ever need to access one of them, you know everything you need to in order to do so.