A HUNTER mental health academic fears university degree fee hikes will dissuade social work students from pursuing the career when people need them more than ever.
Dr Milena Heinsch, a senior mental health research fellow at the University of Newcastle, said a federal government higher education fee restructure would reduce student fees for subjects such as science, maths and engineering, while increasing fees for the humanities - social work, law and creative arts.
Dr Heinsch said the restructure was announced as a means to fund an extra 39,000 university places by 2023, while nudging students towards job choices the Morrison Government deemed "job-relevant".
But social work was highly in demand, she argued, with 94 per cent of students from the University of Newcastle employed within four months of graduating.
"Any disincentive to people entering the social work profession will impact on the nation's health and wellbeing at a time when Australia's 'mental wealth' is already at risk of substantial decline," Dr Heinsch said.
"Our mental health system falls well below the benchmark of a functioning health care system and we expect a continued spike in demand for mental health services resulting from COVID-19.
"The system is already overloaded and now, more than ever, it is crucial that we have qualified, professional workers to assist vulnerable people".
Dr Heinsch said under the new arrangements, social workers - as humanities students - would see an increase in their student contribution of "113 per cent".
It meant they would be looking at a cost of $14,500 for the majority of their required courses as the Commonwealth contribution dropped to $1110.
"In comparison, those deemed 'allied health' and 'other health' will pay $7700 and see a Commonwealth contribution of $13,500."
Dr Heinsch said if the fee hike went ahead, many young people would be priced out of the degree.
The high fees would likely hit regional universities such as Newcastle hard, with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds unable to justify the cost of the degree.
There would be a "huge skills shortage" in the mental health, disability, homelessness, justice, social security, family violence and child protection sectors as a result.
"Which in turn will impact on the wellbeing of the individuals and communities who rely on these services," she said.
"Social workers have formed an integral part of the mental health workforce, and are often at the forefront of crisis intervention.
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers were deemed essential workers - addressing grief, anxiety and trauma and providing support and resources to help restore people's normal patterns of functioning.
"If the university fee hike for social work degrees goes ahead it is likely there will not be enough qualified, professional workers to assist people during COVID-19, or during other natural disasters and widespread times of hardship."
Social work graduate and University of Newcastle PhD candidate Hannah Cootes said it tended to be an "invisible trade" - not broadly recognised or understood.
But social workers were one of the largest groups of allied health professionals in the public health workforce, supporting people who disadvantaged and vulnerable.
"In the hospital, we are there to provide emotional support in times of crisis, we are experts in assessment, we make sure discharge planning is done well, we are the people who advocate for your wishes and needs in any decisions that impact you."