Federal budget cuts to higher education funding sparked student protests around the country this week.

Vice chancellors are fretting too.

The leaders of Australia’s most elite universities have called on the Abbott Government to rethink the scope and timing of the cuts.

Deborah Cornwall with this report.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: After more than a week of rolling student protests, university vice chancellors have also stepped into the ring, making rare statements about their concern at the sheer magnitude of the budget cuts to higher education.

University of Queensland Vice chancellor Peter Hoj:

PETER HOJ: I am generally concerned about the changes to the loan repayments. I do think that was very unexpected and I think that this is one of these things that really make the cuts to the Government funding for students sting more than we had anticipated.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Professor Hoj is one of a growing number of vice chancellors from the elite Group of Eight universities who have been staunch supporters of the Abbott Governments fee deregulation reforms.

But the sheer scale of cuts have left universities scrambling and trying to avoid imposing huge hikes on student fees in just the next few weeks.

PETER HOJ: I am concerned that very good students who do not have the financial means to go to, say University of Queensland, could find the barrier too high.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: American history lecturer Dr Thomas Adams says prohibitive student fees are an inevitable consequence of the Abbott Government push to have Australia try and emulate the American college style system.

Indeed the pressure on Australian students will be far greater, he says, as we don’t have the multi-billion dollar endowments that keep America’s universities afloat.

THOMAS ADAMS: Frankly that kind of, the absurdity of trying to shoehorn the system into the United States model is the lack of really an endowment system in Australia. The Universities, I’ve heard them talk about places like Harvard, you know Harvard has an endowment I think of over $400 billion. The highest endowment in Australia I think is Monash with about $1.2 billion. You can’t replicate an American…American universities don’t run on tuition fees, they run on endowment.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: You’re saying in fact that by cutting public subsidies, Australia effectively is going to be further away from reaching the levels of excellence that the Abbott Government says it aspires to.

THOMAS ADAMS: Mmm, yeah, absolutely. The only parts of the American system that Australia will begin to emulate are its worst parts, where the elite universities in Australia will basically compete with each other for the nation’s best students and the net effect is the kind of top universities will become either the province of the wealthy who can afford it or students willing to go into mass amounts of debt – I did myself in the United States.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: In America we often hear about saving for the college fund, so is that a game changer that families will have to start contemplating saving money?

Deborah Cornwall reported this story on Friday, May 23, 2014 18:30:00