Australia's three largest universities have each decided to offer home students access to full-fee courses for the first time next year - at a cost of up to Aus$100,000 (Pounds 50,000) for some degrees.
Academics have condemnedthe decisions while students at Sydney, Melbourne and Monash universities warned that they would do everything possible to prevent the introduction of full-fee programmes.
Each of the universities experienced violent student protests as their councils debated proposals to introduce full-fee places.
At least six other universities across the country are expected also to begin offering fee-paying courses for Australians in 1998 after the Conservative government scrapped a ban on institutions imposing full fees.
As a result, universities will be permitted to offer up to 25 per cent of the places in any one course to fee-paying home students. They must first, however, have filled all Commonwealth-funded places, although even here students must meet a significant proportion of the cost through the deferred-payment higher education contribution Scheme.
Federal education minister Amanda Vanstone added to the students' anger when she said last week that HECS students should realise they were receiving a bargain. Defending the introduction of full fees, Senator Vanstone said those enrolled under the HECS scheme would be far better off than others who chose or were forced to pay full fees.
"A HECS-paying student who paid the fee in advance would obtain a degree for $17,000 that otherwise would cost $100,000," she said. "That is a BMW degree for the price of a used Holden car. By any measures, the 360,000 undergraduates who will enrol in 1998 should realise the value they are getting for their HECS contributions."
But the opposition spokesman on education, Mark Latham, said the new full-fees system would reward those who could afford to pay for a place and not earn it on merit. The higher education system developed under the conservatives would reward the "slack but rich", rather than the hard-working, lower-income students, Mr Latham said.
The Australian Vice Chancellors Committee responded by declaring that introduction of full fees would not threaten academic standards. President Fay Gale said universities would not be "chasing dollars" without proper regard for the protection of standards.
As was the case with fee-paying foreign students, universities would not allow payment of fees by some undergraduates to compromise the academic reputations of institutions, Professor Gale said.