Future law, accounting and economics students will have their HECS fees halved under a radical overhaul of university funding issued by the Government yesterday.
But science students will see their HECS fees almost double if recommendations to increase student contributions to 40 per cent of their degree costs - with 60 per cent to come from Commonwealth coffers - are accepted next year.
The Base Funding Review, by former South Australian Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith, was issued yesterday after being commissioned by the Government in October last year.
Students reacted with immediate concern to the prospect of fee hikes, with the National Union of Students saying the proposed funding model needed ''significant work'' to take into account the private benefit of a degree in terms of student earning potential and job prospects.
''It would not be in the interests of the community for students who study science degrees to be paying significantly more than students studying other disciplines,'' said union president Jess Marshall.
''This would potentially deter students from areas of study which the Government is trying to encourage them into,'' he said.
The 2009 Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education recommended an overhaul of base funding for universities because the current system is outdated, inflexible and does not adequately reflect the real cost of undergraduate and postgraduate study.
Currently students pay between 19 per cent and 84 per cent of their course costs depending on a complex structure of discipline clusters.
The report recommends new flat cost-sharing ratios be phased in slowly, with current students quarantined from changes while they complete their degree.
In subjects where students are likely to be charged more, such as science, medicine, vet science and dentistry, the review has recommended incremental fee hikes to be monitored closely for impacts on subject demand. For courses where students are likely to see decreases in fees, such as law, accounting and economics, the review recommends freezing student contributions at existing levels with the Government covering price rises in course delivery until they reach the 60 per cent level.
Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans agreed student contributions were ''haphazard''. ''The recommendation says we ought to have a greater consistency so as not to distort choices and I think there's a lot of logic in that,'' he said.
There are now 11 different funding rates for university disciplines, with the report warning that the base rate - which comprises student and government contributions - did not always meet the cost of running a course.
Dr Lomax-Smith said ''If a university is not receiving adequate funding for a particular discipline there'll be some incentive to reduce the number of places and there would also be a possible incentive to abolish some disciplines.''
She noted areas of acute underfunding were accounting, administration, economics, commerce, medicine, veterinary science, agriculture, dentistry and visual and performing arts.
While Professor Bradley recommended an increase to base funding of 10 per cent, Dr Lomax-Smith was less ambitious yesterday, saying a ''several per cent increase'' would be required. Among the 29 recommendations is a call to reward universities who support a student through to the completion of their degree, a 2per cent base funding add-on to pay for contemporary learning spaces, and increased funding for universities to develop outstanding ''flagship'' programs which would receive 50 per cent more than the standard base funding rate, to a limit of 5 per cent of the Commonwealth supported load.
Apart from flagship courses, the review recommends the preservation of caps on what universities would be allowed to charge students.
Senator Evans welcomed the report's focus on ''retention and completion [which] will be key to ensuring both that the Government gets better value for its investment in higher education, but also that students are not leaving their studies early having incurred HECS debts which may take some time to pay back.''
But he warned the Government's response would necessarily take account of the current fiscal environment and budget constraints.