University students from Sydney Uni and UTS protest cuts to funding.

Hopes dashed: University students protest education cuts. Photo: Anthony Johnson

Nowhere is the fear over the federal government's higher education reforms greater than in Jasmin Mantoufeh's family home, where the spectre of giant debt has arrived.

Jasmin, 16, wants to be the first in her family to study law at Australia's oldest university. She is one of three sisters. Her father Naim is a service technician at an optometrist's. Her mother is a full-time housewife. Their still-mortgaged West Hoxton home is 40 kilometres west of the sandstone spires of the University of Sydney.

Jasmin is determined to achieve the ATAR required for entry, but if she does she is unsure whether to accept an offer. ''It's the debts, the big debts,'' she says. ''That's a quarter or a fifth of a mortgage out here.''

Jasmin, like hundreds of thousands of hopeful university students, is concerned about the federal government's revolutionary education reforms. The government wants to deregulate university fees, allowing them to charge whatever they want for a degree. An interest rate of up to 6 per cent will also be applied to student debts for the first time.

No one knows how high fees will rise, or how big student debts will become. Prime Minister Tony Abbott refuses to rule out some course fees doubling. Bruce Chapman, the architect of the HECS repayment scheme, warns of prices tripling, with the cost of prestige degrees rising above $120,000.

The long-held assumption that university policy does not swing votes is being tested. While most of the budget hits low-income families, this change will tug at pockets in the tertiary educated Liberal Party heartland and the much-coveted swinging aspirational voters in areas such as western Sydney.

This is ''the end of the world as we know it'', says higher education professor Simon Marginson.

The uncertainty was palpable at the Revesby Workers Club's Whitlam Auditorium, where the University of Sydney held its annual roadshow for kids and their parents in western Sydney this week. More than 700 people registered in advance, but a week after the budget barely half turned up. It was the worst attendance ever.

Associate Professor Nigel Finch addressed the concerns of families like the Mantoufeh's. ''When the fog of war lifts we will send a message telling you everything you want to know,'' he said. ''We will do everything we can to get that message to you.'' But the fog shows no sign of lifting soon.

Fee deregulation is a controversial idea but not a new one. Howard government higher education minister David Kemp wanted to deregulate fees in 1999, but the idea was scuttled when his cabinet submission was leaked, sparking a national furore.

The idea has been lying in wait.

''This idea has been routinely bowled up by the Group of Eight [a lobby group representing the country's top research universities],'' Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr says. ''It was put to me when I was higher education minister just before the last election and I knocked it on the head, as other ministers have.''

Sensing an opportunity, the Group of Eight went public in April with a call for full deregulation of fees. There was no detailed economic modelling to back their proposal but strong rhetoric. This was Australia's best shot, they said, at creating an Aussie Harvard or Stanford.

''We should not be ashamed of thinking big. There is no reason the degrees offered by Australian universities shouldn't match the best in the world,'' Australian National University vice chancellor Ian Young said.

''Removing arbitrary limits on fees would lead to a more vibrant and diverse university system and allow Australian universities to become truly world class.''

The government's National Commission of Audit agreed, backing fee deregulation but calling for 12 months' consultation first.

The government was not in a waiting mood. The budget revealed full deregulation of fees, effective from 2016, to affect all students who enrol after budget night. This means students who enter university in this year's midyear intake could face rising fees in the later years of their degree. So would this year's 160,000 school leavers.

Peak body Universities Australia is calling for a delay to provide more certainty.

''This is a radical change in the true meaning of that word,'' Universities Australia chairwoman Sandra Harding said. ''We're going to a place we have never been before. If we're going to do that, we need to take the time to get this right in everyone's interests.''

Even some of the biggest supporters - the Group of Eight vice-chancellors -- are wobbling. University of Sydney vice chancellor Michael Spence says he fears the prospect of mounting debts will deter middle-class students from entering university. Forcing universities to devote 20 per cent of any extra income to scholarships and bursaries may not be enough, he warns.

''I want the best students, not only those who can afford to pay,'' Dr Spence said. ''It's the ordinary Australians that I think aren't getting enough of a guernsey in this conversation.''

One of Education Minister Christopher Pyne's biggest supporters in the sector, University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Warren Bebbington, also voiced alarm. In a letter to students, he wrote: ''It is starting to look as if the student debt burden … might well be worse than in the US.''

Universities are particularly concerned about two planks of the government's reforms. First, from 2016 there will be an across the board 20 per cent reduction in government funding for university places. This will have dramatically uneven effects, leading some fees to rise while others are expected to remain steady or drop.

Government funding for environmental studies will fall by 44.5 per cent, according to an analysis by Grattan Institute Higher Education program director Andrew Norton. This means universities will have to charge students almost $30,000 extra to maintain present funding levels - a 112 per cent increase.

Fees for engineering and science students would rise by 59 per cent, by 49 per cent for visual and performing arts students, by 43 per cent for social studies students and by 42 per cent for agriculture students.

Norton stresses these are the minimum increases one should expect. It is more likely, he says, that universities will raise fees towards the levels they charge international students. This would see annual fees for a law degrees rise, on average, from $9792 a year to $37,831 a year. A business degree would rise from $9792 to $21,058. Fees at elite institutions would be far higher.

''If the price leaders maintain most of their student demand, I expect other institutions and programs will follow with doubled fees and the leaders will increase their fees even further,'' RMIT policy analyst Gavin Moodie says.

The other potent issue is increasing the interest charged on student loans. For the first time, student debts will accrue interest at the 10-year Treasury bond rate, capped at 6 per cent.

A $60,000 debt, unpaid for 10 years, would grow to $97,734 at an interest rate of 5 per cent. Chapman warns that poor graduates and women who take time off work to have children will be hit the hardest because they take more time to pay back their loans. Marginson warns debts could reach ''horrifying'' levels due to interest rate changes.

Moodie says the biggest beneficiaries of the reforms will be the big universities such as Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, Western Australia, NSW and Monash universities. However, Dr Moodie said the other Group of Eight universities - Adelaide and ANU - would benefit less because they do not recruit from such a big pool of students from wealthy backgrounds.

Those likely to battle financially in a fee-based regime would be universities with fewer natural advantages. Those whose revenues are expected to come under the most pressure include Flinders, Murdoch, Sunshine Coast and Tasmania. Life also could become more difficult for UNE, Charles Darwin, Southern Queensland and Central Queensland, he said.

Pyne insists the government has a good story to tell on higher education.

His proudest reform is a plan to extend Commonwealth support to students at private colleges, TAFEs and in sub-bachelor degree programs for the first time. This would allow 80,000 extra students, most from poor backgrounds, to gain tertiary qualifications, he says. It would also prevent a blowout in course costs.

''The competitive nature of having the universities competing with about 140 non-university higher education providers will mean that universities won't be able to charge astronomical fees, or no students would turn up,'' he told 2GB this week.

It is only fair university graduates pay more, Pyne says, when they earn much more than those who don't go to university. But it is a hard sell.

An Essential Media poll, taken after the budget, found 58 per cent of voters oppose fee deregulation, while 17 per cent support it

As well as convincing voters, Pyne has to convince Senate kingmaker Clive Palmer to support the reforms in the Senate.

After flagging last week that he may support the government's policy, Palmer now says he will not vote for legislation that increases university fees.

On Wednesday night, as the audience filed out of the Revesby Workers Club's Whitlam Auditorium, Jasmine thought about what she would do if studying law at Sydney University cost $100,000 and another institution was significantly less. ''I would do the cheaper one. I just want to study law.''

Her father nodded: ''As long as Jasmin gets the paper. It doesn't matter what name is on it.''

In the foyer, a large screen promotes a concert by former Sherbet singer Daryl Braithwaite. It was another throwback to the 1970s - just like a free university education.