The University of Melbourne’s extension program for gifted high school students is in crisis after some of Victoria’s leading maths teachers withdrew their support over a proposed $800 fee charged to pupils.

The popular 18-year-old program, which enables Year 12 students to study university subjects while they’re still at school, was previously free before the University decided to start charging due to a “difficult financial climate”. Students will now be billed $400 per semester, with half the fee to be returned to schools — money, the schools say, they never asked for.

In a letter to University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis, obtained by Crikey, Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School maths teacher David Treeby said it was the schools, not the university, that bore the cost of the program. “In effect, high school students are going to be charged by the University for the Enhancement Program that various high schools and their teachers have been supplying, often voluntarily, and often for free, for over a decade,” he said.

“Many of the program’s teachers contribute to the program on a completely voluntary basis as a service to their wider school community. It is reprehensible that the university should seek to profit from their service,” he said in a separate email.

The charge, that could net the University an extra $100,000 based on current enrolments, has the potential to cruel interest in the program, with pupils likely to baulk at the price. The program is considered a key recruitment tool in the annual fight for Year 12 students’ university preferences.

In an reply sent to Treeby, Acting Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington said that the fee was necessary because “the ongoing viability of programs like this one is an increasing challenge”. He says the proposal will go before the University Senior Executive later this week and that the decision was a result of an extensive “consultation process”. Bebbington also suggested the fees were required to mimic Monash University, which already levies a $450 per semester charge, and spruiked a proposed 50% discount for disadvantaged participants.

However, Treeby told Crikey the program was run almost exclusively by schools, with the University only providing its imprimatur and limited administrative support. Classes take place on high school campuses and up to 90% of the cost relates to school budgets. He said the University’s actions were “cynical and mercenary and completely disproportionate to their purported contribution to this program.”

“This move, apart from being greedy, is myopic in vision and will be self defeating in practice.”

The University uses the extension program to groom potential undergraduates, and students are able to add a loading to their national tertiary rank. They can then claim first-year credit points if they subsequently enrol at Melbourne.

Crikey understands that at least four other leading Victorian maths teachers are also preparing to withdraw their support if the proposal goes ahead, a move that could terminate the program, according to Treeby. University maths makes up the vast majority of enrolments.

A memo sent to teachers by University Admissions Coordinator Kellie Henderson on August 30 announcing the hike was news to Treeby and a number of other leading teachers. They say the consequences could be devastating for the sandstone icon.

One senior teacher from a leading private school suggested the tide of pupils choosing rival Monash University over Melbourne would turn into a torrent as a result of the decision. The controversial Melbourne Model curriculum, designed by University powerbrokers to increase postgraduate fee income, has met with a lukewarm response.

“There’s currently a vibe of people going to Monash, because of the Melbourne Model… Melbourne has been marketing more, it’s very poor timing on their part because, more than ever, they probably need to market themselves in a positive light,” the teacher said.

“They’re already losing the top students as it is.”

The University of Melbourne did not respond to Crikey‘s requests for comment before deadline.