A Sydney University student protest on May 28, 2014.

A Sydney University student protest on May 28, 2014. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Students will be hit with double fees for some arts degrees and at least 55 per cent rises for engineering and science degrees at the University of Sydney under the federal government's controversial overhaul of higher education.

An analysis of the cost implications to the university from the government's planned 20 per cent reduction in funding for university places shows fees for communications, social science, environmental and engineering degrees will soar.

A Sydney University three-year bachelor of environmental systems costs a domestic student a minimum of $25,839 based on current fees.

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt Golding

Under the changes, students would face a bill of at least $42,405 for the same degree from 2016.

A communications degree costs a student about $18,132 but that would skyrocket to about $37,000.

The predictions are similar at the University of Melbourne where vice-chancellor Glyn Davis expects fees for engineering degrees will rise by at least 60 per cent and science degrees by about 54 per cent.

There could be big changes in Sydney University fees.

There could be big changes in Sydney University fees. Photo: Fairfax

This means a Melbourne University bachelor of science degree with a civil systems engineering major, which costs a domestic student a minimum of $24,082, would rise to at least $38,772.

In an email to university staff, Professor Davis said the fee forecasts did not cover expensive courses such as medicine and law, which some experts have predicted could triple in costs or rise even higher.

''Fees would need to rise by 45 per cent to make up lost funding in social science disciplines, by 54 per cent in science, and by 61 per cent in engineering,'' Professor Davis wrote.

''Everyone on campus, student and staff member alike, understands we are now entering an unprecedented era in higher education.''

Professor Davis said the upshot of Education Minister Christopher Pyne's policies was that ''much public funding will likely be removed from tertiary education''.

He said few people had noticed the government's 20 per cent cut to the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, ''along with cuts or abolition of small funding schemes supporting teaching excellence and participation initiatives.''

''Universities are invited to make up this gap through higher fees,'' Professor Davis said. ''Students would get nothing new for this increased debt,'' he added, contradicting Mr Pyne's arguments that students will get a better deal and better facilities once their universities were open to market competition.

The University of NSW is still finalising its modelling, but its acting vice-chancellor, Iain Martin, said the university had been ''hit harder than many universities by the changes to cluster rates''.

''The size of our engineering faculty in particular means that for us there is an overall cut of 24 per cent in government funding,'' Professor Martin said.

''Given the critical importance of these programs to Australia's future, we will be doing our utmost to reduce the impact on students studying in these disciplines.''

Responding to Professor Davis' email, Mr Pyne said ''some fees will go up and some will go down''.

''In a deregulated environment all higher education providers will have to compete for students,'' he said.

On Sunday, Mr Pyne told the ABC's Insiders program that competition between universities would keep fees down.

"If universities think they can get away with charging exorbitant fees, I think you will find they face intense competition," he said.

"I think we will see a great deal of speculation but I'm not going to respond to different statements or claims being made by particular vice-chancellors, because at the end of the day, I think competition will drive prices down."

In the most radical overhaul of higher education since Gough Whitlam introduced free tuition in the 1970s, the Coalition is proposing to deregulate university fees, allowing universities 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.

With Judith Ireland