The education of professionals in Australian universities is moving towards a user-pays regime that could stifle demand and restrict access to the affluent, according to the Higher Education Council.
In a detailed report to the federal government, the council says that cuts in university grants and the introduction of full fees for some students are likely to have a profound impact on who gains access to professional courses.
The council says professional education should be substantially publicly subsidised to ensure equity of access and it warns that the student profile in some professions is already extremely biased, particularly towards male urban students and those from well-to-do homes.
The council does not support the trend to move training into the graduate arena, where universities are free to charge full-cost fees. On average, postgraduates already pay more than the double the charge that undergraduates face - a masters degree in engineering can cost up to Aus$16,000 (Pounds 8,000) a year.
"The council believes that the health of the professions and their ability to serve the full diversity of the Australian community is dependent on their membership being broadly representative of the community," the report says.
"Decisions made by professional bodies on admitting graduates to practice and on the nature of their entry requirements should therefore not exacerbate what is already an unsatisfactory situation in relation to equity of access to all groups in the community."
The council's report follows a two-year investigation into the way the professions in Australia influence university course design and the extent to which they dictate what students learn. The former Labor government asked the council to report on the issue and the current education minister, Amanda Vanstone, agreed that the HEC should conclude its inquiry.
Research into the issue was initially triggered by widespread concern within the universities over the extent to which some professional organisations effectively determined the core content and structure of courses, thereby undermining institutional autonomy.
As the council notes, many of the organisations that accredit graduates for work in the 28 major professions in Australia are heavily involved in university course approvals and review, as well as teaching and assessment.
But the investigation found little evidence of intrusiveness or of unreasonable demands that might impair university autonomy. The report says this may be a result of the adoption of comprehensive quality assurance processes in the higher education sector over the past three years, which has resulted in greater involvement by all stakeholders in course design and review.
The council report, however, calls for more participation by students, government and employer groups in approving and accrediting courses.
In many instances, students were not given enough information about the requirements for registration to enter particular professional fields.
The council says the issue of funding professional education, including whether or not it should be consolidated at the undergraduate level or be exempt from fees, should be examined as part of the government's planned review of higher education.