Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to rule out university fees doubling because of his government's deregulation of the sector, as some institutions suggest the rises will be much greater due to withdrawn funding.
Mr Abbott said increased competition in the market would mean some fees would increase but others would go down. He said no one would have to pay a ''cent upfront'' as HELP loans cover initial costs.
When asked if fees may double, Mr Abbott said on Thursday: ''There are lots of things that I can't guarantee, because we live in an uncertain world, but I can guarantee that no one will have to pay a cent upfront because there'll be these fee-help loans to cover their upfront costs.''
"We live in an uncertain world": Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Matt King
On Thursday the government went on the offensive to defend its overhaul of the higher education sector as criticism mounted of its deregulation of university fees.
The changes have plunged the university sector into uncertainty. Applications for the midyear intake, the first students to be affected by the new fee regime, close in two weeks, and many institutions are unable to tell them what they would be charged in the later years of their degree. Some sector analysts have speculated the cost of highly sought-after degrees could rise to $120,000.
In a speech in Sydney, Education Minister Christopher Pyne said Australia would never have the diversity of choices for students and the quality of courses needed without fee deregulation.
''When institutions compete for students, students win,'' Mr Pyne said. ''Higher education institutions will be more responsive to student needs as they position themselves in the higher education market.''
Mr Pyne said he was confident most of the changes would become law. ''Our job is to get as much of this through as possible - I want it all through,'' he said. ''And I can see that there's a very fair chance that almost all of it will get through.''
Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr said: ''This is a shambles, not a strategy. It's only a matter of time before the government has to abandon what has been a very hastily devised program of cuts.''
The Prime Minister's comment came as the University of Sydney released preliminary research that showed its faculty of arts and social sciences faced an uncertain future with reduced government revenue of about $10.3 million.
It followed university vice-chancellor Michael Spence warning on Thursday that fee deregulation and increasing student loan debts with higher rates of interest risked pricing middle-class families out of a tertiary education.
Universities have called on the government to take more time to investigate any unintended consequences of the changes.
Dr Spence said the government's reforms to the higher education sector were already having an effect on universities, students and school leavers. A recruitment event at the Revesby Workers Club on Wednesday night had half the number of formal acceptances to attend. ''We saw lower numbers than we've ever seen before,'' he said.
But Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young, whose institution is one of the Group of Eight, does not believe the cost will be anywhere near that high: ''I suspect institutions will be cautious rather than go with grandiose fee levels in the initial years.''