Higher education courses cost tens of thousands of dollars on average in Australia, and many young people need financial assistance to pay for their studies. HELP loans allow eligible students to defer tuition costs until they earn above a certain amount, giving them a chance to gain an income with their skills and qualifications before repaying their student loans.
What is the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP)?
HELP is a government-backed student loan scheme administered by the Department of Education and Training. HELP loans go toward the cost of higher education tuition fees but can’t be used for student accommodation, textbooks, laptops and other education expenses. Rather than receiving the money in your bank account, your tuition fees are paid directly to the course provider.
A separate VET Student Loans program applies to students undertaking approved vocational education and training or VET courses.
Commonwealth-supported versus fee-paying places
Numerous factors affect your tuition fees, including whether you’re a Commonwealth-supported or fee-paying student.
University or higher education providers often have Commonwealth Supported Places or CSPs for undergraduate courses. They’re also available for some postgraduate courses.
- If you get a CSP, the Australian Government will pay some of your fees, but you’ll still have to pay the rest. The portion of fees you’re responsible for is called your ‘student contribution amount’.
- If you can’t get a CSP, you’ll enrol as a full fee-paying student. These places are more expensive because they’re not subsidised.
» Need help paying for school supplies? See if you qualify for a no-interest loan.
Types of HELP loans
HELP loans are available for both Commonwealth-supported and full-fee-paying students.
Who it’s for: Commonwealth-supported students who need help paying their student contribution amount.
- These loans are sometimes called HECS loans because student loans were previously delivered under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). After major reforms were introduced, HECS became part of HELP.
- When you enrol in subjects for the upcoming semester as a Commonwealth-supported student, you’ll need to pay your student contribution amount or the remaining costs after government subsidies have been applied. You can either pay upfront, defer with a HECS-HELP loan, or pay upfront partially and defer the rest.
- You’ll also need to choose your payment method by a certain deadline, called the census date.
- There is no application fee for HECS-HELP, and you only have to apply for it once for the duration of your course.
Who it’s for: Fee-paying students who need help with fee-paying tuition fees.
- Fee-paying students may be eligible for FEE-HELP to pay all or part of their tuition costs for your fee-paying place.
- It’s critical to find out course costs before enrolling. The cost of places can vary significantly between institutions. Since the amount you can borrow under the HELP scheme is capped (see below for more information), there’s a possibility that your loan limit won’t cover your total tuition fees.
- You only need to apply for FEE-HELP once for the course duration, but there’s a 20% loan fee for some undergraduate courses.
Who it’s for: Students who wish to undertake part of their studies overseas. For example, students on a semester exchange.
- Students on a semester exchange, for example, can apply for an OS-HELP loan to help with expenses like airfares, accommodation and other travel or study costs.
- You can get two OS-HELP loans over your lifetime but not within the same six-month period.
- Unlike other HELP loans, your course provider pays the loan amount to you directly if your OS-HELP application is approved.
Who it’s for: Students who need help paying their student services and amenities fee (SSAF).
- Separate from your tuition costs, higher education providers charge a compulsory student services and amenities fee (SSAF) to cover the cost of providing services such as career advice, counseling, childcare, student union and sporting activities.
- The SSAF is capped at $326 for 2023, and an SA-HELP loan can pay for all or part of your SSAF.
- SA-HELP loan amounts are added to other HELP debt you have.
- You’ll only need to apply for SA-HELP once during your course.
Combined HELP loan limits
There’s a limit to how much you can borrow from the government for your studies. This threshold is called the combined loan limit, and includes HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP, VET FEE-HELP and VET Student Loans. SA-HELP and OS-HELP loans are excluded.
Combined loan limits are indexed annually according to the Consumer Price Index and vary depending on your study area.
- The combined HELP loan limit for most students in 2023 is $113,028.
- If you’re studying medicine, dentistry, veterinary science or certain aviation courses, you’ll have a higher limit of $162,336.
Once you reach your loan limit, you can make a repayment and then access HELP again.
How to apply for a HELP loan
You can get started by choosing a course and checking your CSP eligibility. If you’re eligible, you must confirm that the course you’re interested in offers CSP enrolments.
Remember, only Commonwealth-supported students can apply for HECS-HELP loans. If you’re enrolling as a fee-paying student, check your chosen course is approved for FEE-HELP loans.
Proving your eligibility
For all HELP loans, you need to:
- Meet residency requirements. You’ll need to be an Australian citizen, a New Zealand citizen meeting certain residency criteria, or a holder of a permanent humanitarian visa. Permanent residents are not eligible for HELP loans but can apply for a CSP.
- Meet tax file number requirements. You need a tax file number (TFN) or have applied for one.
- Apply within the eligible time period. You’ll need to be enrolled in your course and have submitted your HELP loan application by the deadline, sometimes called the census date.
- Have a Unique Student Identifier or USI. Your USI is used to track the record of your studies.
You’ll also need to check additional eligibility criteria specific to each loan. For example, you can’t ask for HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP if you’ve exceeded your HELP loan limit. For OS-HELP, you must have completed the equivalent of one year of full-time study before applying.
Submitting your application
You can get HELP loan forms from your course provider and complete and submit them by the deadline. To check the progress of your application, you’ll need to speak to your course provider directly.
Repaying your HELP loan
The Australian Taxation Office manages HELP loan repayments.
You’ll start repaying your HELP debt once you earn above the repayment threshold, which is $48,361 for 2022-23. Current repayment rates range from 1% to 10%, depending on your income. Both repayment thresholds and rates are updated annually.
Unlike other loan types, there is no deadline to repay your HELP loan.
What to consider before taking out a HELP loan
The idea of taking out an interest-free loan for your studies can be appealing, but having sizable accumulated debt can have long-term ramifications. Here are some consequences to bear in mind:
- The value of your HELP loan debt will likely grow over time.
- Although HELP loans are interest-free, the outstanding balances are indexed annually to account for cost-of-living changes, which can raise your debt. For example, with an indexation rate of 3.9% in 2022, a graduate with $25,000 in accumulated HELP loans would see their debt increase by $975.
- Additionally, since HELP loans don’t have a deadline or a repayment schedule, your debt can be left to grow year after year if your income stays below the repayment threshold.
- Your HELP debt affects your capacity to service a loan, and you might find it difficult to borrow in future, say when you need a mortgage or business loan.
- Your take-home pay will fall as repayments kick in, potentially worsening your cash-flow situation and preventing you from saving money.
- You can’t cancel a HELP debt if you change your mind about your studies, and you need to pass 50% of your units to continue receiving government assistance, so it’s essential you feel passionate about a course before signing up.