Australian universities will have to slash the number of postgraduate students taking coursework programmes over the next two years because of federal grant cuts.
Nearly 30,000 or almost a third of federally funded postgraduate places will be wiped out by 1998, the National Tertiary Education Union has warned.
It says that unless institutions can attract thousands more students prepared to pay high tuition fees, many will again become teaching-only colleges.
The union says the government is seeking to recreate "by stealth" the former binary divide by establishing a group of small, research-based universities and a large group of institutions where only teaching is offered.
The government, however, believes the cuts in availability of the Higher Education Contributory Scheme for postgraduates can be countered by universities expanding fee-paying courses. Although these now exceed 1,000 - up from virtually zero in 1989 when the former Labor government lifted restrictions on institutions charging postgraduates fees - the growth has been largely confined to a few large universities which will therefore be least affected.
Most postgraduates do not pay tuition fees and are only liable for charges under HECS, currently set at less than Aus$2,500 (Pounds 1,250) a year, which students can repay through a tax surcharge when they begin work. The average cost of course fees, however, is nearly three times the HECS sum and may be as high as Aus$50,000 for courses such as an MBA.
But the quality of these courses has come under attack from the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations.
In a series of surveys to find out how students cope with what has become another mass sector of education, the council uncovered a disturbing picture of institutions seemingly intent on exploiting postgraduates, not only for their money but their intellectual potential as well.
Postgraduates protested initially about overcrowding, understaffing and a lack of resources such as libraries and laboratories. But by 1994 the council's report was warning that access and equity had been seriously compromised by the advent of fees. It said the reputation of Australia's universities was at stake as the standard of postgraduate courses declined.
According to Simon Marginson, an education lecturer at Melbourne University, the rapid rise of fee-based courses, deregulation of fee levels and growing commercialisation of research, are leading to inequalities in student access and quality between institutions.
Dr Marginson says Labor's quality assurance scheme, in which universities were assessed each year on how well they were performing, did not ensure that postgraduate courses were world class or were regulated by standard requirements as to length and other features.
With the abandonment of the quality programme by the Howard government, institutions are unlikely to take action themselves because they have a vested interest in protecting their own reputations, he says.