THE 12 per cent of Hong Kong-born students studying in Australia who faced paying upfront tertiary fees because they are not Australian citizens have been given a reprieve by a federal Government backdown. The backdown was forced on the Minister for Education, Simon Crean, by the opposition in the last hours of federal Parliament's final session of the year. The changes, which had been due to come into effect on Monday, would have meant the tertiary fees - known as HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme), which at present all students can defer until graduation - could not have been deferred by those who had been permanent residents in Australia for more than three years without taking citizenship. This measure, which would have raised A$12 million (HK$68.64 million), was part of a wider package of measures aimed at funding 5,850 new tertiary places over the next three years. The places were endangered by the opposition's refusal to approve the fund-raising package. Because the coalition Liberal-National opposition, with the Democrats and Greens, control the Senate, the Government is unable to pass legislation without backing from one of these groups. The HECS changes for non-citizens were combined with changes to the repayment schedule for students after graduation. After a series of opposition amendments that Mr Crean said unravelled a carefully designed package, he cut a deal with the opposition which saw the repayment changes - increasing the repayment threshold and thus raising A$38 million - passed by the opposition and the citizenship changes withdrawn by Mr Crean. He said he cut the deal to secure tertiary places in South Australia and Victoria. Otherwise, the loss of funds would have meant those states losing places to Queensland. In Parliament, he accused the opposition of protecting 'non-citizens'. The Government plans to create a further 2,397 places in 1997 and 1,698 in 1998. The now-abandoned plans for HECS changes had brought protests, including a flag burning, on Australian campuses. The aim was to prevent non-citizens deferring the fees - A$2,409 for a full-time student last year - then leaving the country without paying after graduation. But a Monash University study had found they would not achieve that aim. It found most of the 1,873 Hong Kong students who were not citizens had been in Australia less than three years - a category that would not have been covered by the changes. The opposition's action in opposing the changes was welcomed by student groups but opposed by the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee despite the problems it had foreseen for universities in identifying who had to pay and who did not. It was against the opposition's move because it said research funding and new tertiary places were its highest priority. The opposition's education spokesman, Senator Robert Hill, said the amendments were a victory for students. 'We have sent a strong message to the Keating Government that it cannot keep changing HECS rules on students once they have commenced studies,' he said.