One of Australia's most senior academics has warned that the federal government's proposed changes to higher education would result in a ''social experiment without precedent in Australia'' as students from poorer backgrounds deal with university fees that are set to soar by up to 60 per cent.
Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis told Fairfax Media that, while the United Kingdom did not report a long-term fall in enrolments when it deregulated fees, there was no way of knowing in advance how local students would respond to the pending fee rises.
Professor Davis said it would be ''very distressing'' if students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were no longer as willing to sign up to university degrees.
''That's a social experiment without precedent in Australia,'' he said.
Professor Davis also suggested that the reforms were unlikely to pass the Parliament as they stood, leaving the higher education sector in a state of uncertainty.
''I don't think any of us know what the real package will end up looking like, including possibly the minister,'' he said.
The government announced last month that universities would be able to set their own course fees, while cutting federal funding of fees by about 20 per cent.
Professor Davis said he had advocated for fee deregulation but that was not a call for cuts to public funding.
''It was a way of saying public funding is already inadequate,'' he said.
''It's hard in those circumstances to see how we're going to proceed without at least making up the money we've just lost [through increasing course fees].''
Education Minister Christopher Pyne on Sunday played down the likelihood of soaring fees as a result of the budget.
''If universities think they can get away with charging exorbitant fees you will find they face intense competition,'' he told ABC's Insiders program.
The government also is pushing to increase the interest rate for HELP debts, changing it from an inflation rate equivalent to one that ''reflects the cost of government borrowing'' in 2016.
But Mr Pyne confused the debate on Sunday by appearing to contradict his department's website about who will be affected by the budget changes.
When asked if students who are enrolling today or next year would be repaying their debts at a higher rate, Mr Pyne replied: ''Anybody who was enrolled before May 14, nothing will change in terms of their arrangements.''
The government's Study Assist website clearly states that the new indexation arrangements will ''apply to all HELP debts (including those incurred by former students, continuing students and new students) continuing and new students beginning with the indexation of debts on 1 June, 2016''.
Coming after wobbles from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey while explaining budget measures, Labor said Mr Pyne's response was a sign the government did not know what was in its budget.
Labor's higher education spokesman Kim Carr said Mr Pyne was either ''very confused'' about the policy or he was ''seeking to mislead''.
Mr Pyne's office said he was referring to changes in overall fees not affecting existing students, rather than the interest rate.