The national student union has condemned the federal budget’s shake-up of tertiary funding as ''horrifying'' despite the changes being embraced by Australia’s leading university, the ANU.
The president of the National Union of Students, Deanna Taylor, said she was ''horrified but not entirely surprised'' by the government’s most significant reform to the HECS scheme since its introduction in 1989.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget announced restrictions on course costs will be scrapped while the amount of funding for university courses will decline from 2016. Graduates will also repay their HELP debts once they earn $50,638, rather than $53,345
But Ms Taylor said the changes mean a generation of high-school students nearing the end of their studies will have to reassess whether university is a viable option, given their family's financial situation.
''The deregulation of fees is without a doubt going to leave students with a sharp increase in fees, which will hit disadvantaged students the hardest,'' she said.
Ms Taylor said given the reforms announced in the budget, we may see more students paying in excess of $100,000 to receive a university education.
''We’re slowing moving towards United States models of tertiary education, which most people would agree is not the shining beacon of access to education,'' she said. ''Obviously, we want our universities to be world class but the way to do that is not to punish disadvantaged students.''
Ms Taylor said there were some ''very big question marks'' over the government’s promised scholarships for disadvantaged students and on access. The budget details 20 per cent of additional revenue raised through increased fees will be used to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students.
''The scholarships that the government has been talking about will not nearly make up for the increases in student fees and it remains to be seen how that equity scheme will actually work,'' she said.
But ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young said ''the government is just being practical in these things''.
''We have seen over the last four years the demand-driven system has grown the cost to the budget significantly, now either the taxpayer is going to have to pay that or the student is going to have to pay that or the system will become impoverished ... A slight change to the mix of what the taxpayer and the student affords is probably a good thing,'' he said.
ANU Students' Association president Cameron Wilson said disadvantaged students are already under-represented at the university and the budget reforms are likely to exacerbate inequality.
''Despite the equity scholarship fig leaf, disadvantaged students will have more and more trouble accessing university due to ballooning costs and dropping graduate incomes,'' he said. ''We call on ANU to carefully consider and consult with students who are already crushed under huge student debts. ANU should have the best minds and not the best-paying minds.''