Australian universities are advocating for a HECS-style loan for short courses that will allow people to upskill more easily, ahead of Tuesday’s federal budget.

The proposed loan would cover ‘micro-credentials’ designed to enable those looking to study – particularly Australians working full-time – to gain certifications that are not formal degrees or qualifications but are still assessed and provide additional or complementary learning.

The peak body said the higher education loan program (HELP), formally known as HECS, should be extended to cover these credentials, which would also help the university sector recover revenue lost since the start of the pandemic.

The proposal is one of 12 recommendations made in a submission by Universities Australia on Friday to the government ahead of next week’s federal budget.

The submission provides examples of two micro-credentials that could be covered under the proposal: The Assessment of Bushfire Exposure at the University of Melbourne, and Fundamentals of Digital Health in Hospitals at Deakin University, which cost $1,490 and $1,909 respectively.

Universities Australia also argued financial barriers were locking Australians out of higher education and suggested the short courses would mutually benefit those looking to upskill and the struggling university sector.

“Australia’s existing financial incentives do not support workers that are facing time constraints to training or workers transitioning to new occupations,” it said in a statement.

“Prospective students who are time poor … currently have to pay upfront for non-award micro-credentials.”

The peak body said the government should extend the eligibility to access loans for as many “non-award micro-credentials” as possible as an incentive for prospective students to enrol.

The courses improve the “affordability of education and training by removing the need for upfront payment of course fees,” it said.

It also suggested the removal of upfront payments currently required for short courses in areas such as bushfire preparedness or digital health could make Australians more prepared for future crises.

More uptake through such a program would also help the university sector recover revenue lost over the past year, where public universities were excluded from JobKeeper wage subsidies during the pandemic and an estimated 17,000 employees lost their jobs.

The submission comes on the heels of the announcement last week by Education Minister Alan Tudge that 5,000 more short course places at non-university institutions would be funded by the Commonwealth this year.

The funding tallies up at $26.1 million, with the extra places in addition to 2,500 previously announced.

In a statement at the time, Tudge said the May 11 federal budget will include funds to support smaller education providers, adding that the package was geared toward providing targeted support to higher education institutions suffering from the impact of border closures.

“Many non-university providers have seen revenue decline very sharply and without some support, they may close or lose serious capacity,” Tudge said.

He also flagged that around 30,000 new and existing domestic students will receive a FEE-HELP loan fee exemption.

In a statement accompanying the submission, Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the 12 initiatives proposed were designed to do as much as possible protect the nation’s higher education sector into 2021.

“It’s vital we continue to work with Government to identify ways of providing a long-term, sustainable funding system,” Jackson said.

“In a time of economic disruption, innovation and a productive skilled workforce become even more crucial to maintaining Australia’s competitiveness and prosperity.”

This article was originally published on Business Insider Australia.