University student representatives have condemned the federal government's proposal to bar students from access to a Commonwealth-supported place if they repeatedly fail subjects.
Under the changes announced by Education Minister Dan Tehan, students who fail more than 50 per cent of eight or more units in a bachelor's course would not be able to access HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP.
Students would not be penalised if they could demonstrate adverse circumstances, such as illness or bereavement.
The measures, outlined in the Job-Ready Graduates package draft legislation, would allow a student to switch courses without the low completion rate being carried over.
Mr Tehan said the measures would prevent students from taking on an unrealistic study load and amassing huge debt.
"The lack of transparency of a student's enrolment has allowed some non-genuine students to enrol and re-enrol at multiple providers at the same time," he said.
"We have found cases where students with the highest levels of debt have been continuously enrolled at multiple providers at the same time, resulting in debts ranging from $220,000 up to $660,000 combined with very low pass rates - on average these students have passed just one in every five subjects they have attempted."
Australian National University Students' Association (ANUSA) president Lachlan Day said academic performance should not be used as leverage against financially disadvantaged students to lock them out of their education.
"This is especially horrific in a year where students have already felt the impact of COVID-19 on their studies, their jobs and their livelihoods," Mr Day said.
"This is another step in a long line of anti-student actions from this government and it is important that we don't stop fighting these exclusionary actions."
The University of Canberra's academic deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Geoff Crisp, said it was rare for students to progress so poorly while accumulating a large debts.
"We understand why the government is concerned about people accumulating large loans for their education, but we would not want to see unintended consequences for students in equity categories being denied access to an education that could benefit their employability prospects," he said.
"In our experience these cases are rare, and we have ongoing checks on student progress as well as access to support services should any student receive a fail grade, to counteract these potential issues as they arise."
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities already had a range of measures in place to ensure students made satisfactory academic progress within their chosen course.
"It is in everyone's interest that students do well and when they don't that a wide range of assistance is available," she said.
"Sometimes students will take on some extra preparatory study and/or change to an entirely different area of study. It is important that these commonsense choices are supported by Commonwealth rules."
An ANU spokesperson said the institution was looking at the details of the Education Minister's announcement to ensure it wouldn't disadvantage its students.
"ANU is committed to taking a diverse range of students from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences who are able and supported to thrive during their time at the University," they said.