The reintroduction of tuition fees will "sabotage" progress, the group that agitated for their abolition over a decade ago said last night.
The Campaign for Free Third Level Education has reformed to oppose the mooted reintroduction of fees, saying it would be a mistake of "mammoth proportions" to bring back fees or to introduce a student loan system.
Spokeswoman Margaret Hopkins said that, when they campaigned in the mid-1990s, "no president of any of our universities was in favour of abolishing the fees and they are still of the same thinking".
"The Government's crusade to reintroduce fees or student loans is a retrograde step, and indeed there is much phoney debate about their reintroduction or the student loan alternative," she said in a statement.
The abolition of fees had been hugely beneficial to the working-class families who would not have benefited from the grant system. It had given rise to an increase in third-level participation by lower socio-economic groups.
The proportion of school leavers going on to third-level had risen from 36pc in 1992 to 44pc in 1998 and to 55pc in 2004. Participation rates by children in families headed by skilled manual workers had almost doubled from 32pc in 1998 to 60pc in 2004. Likewise, the children of semi-skilled or unskilled manual workers had increased from 23pc to 33pc.
Ms Hopkins said: "It's bizarre that we are considering copying the Australian student loan system when Australia's education minister Julia Gillard has questioned the credibility of their student loan model and described the scheme as 'at best complex and at worst anomalous, inconsistent and irrational'. It is at present under review."
She said that Irish students were already paying, as the registration fee had jumped to €900 -- a 400pc increase in the past 12 years.
"Surely Mr O'Keeffe, as a third-level lecturer, should be more sympathetic to the students' circumstances and should take action on the Government's abysmal performance in financial support for education," she said.
Meanwhile, the President of the Limerick Institute of Technology, Dr Maria Hinfelaar, has warned that fees could seriously hit the institutes. Their abolition had contributed enormously to widening access to higher education.
Many of the students in the institutes would be exempt from paying fees because of their financial circumstances.
"Are we going to witness the creation of one or two elite universities who will be blessed with disproportionately large cohorts of fee-paying students, while other institutions continue to be squeezed by shrinking state funds?" she asked.
Dr Hinfelaar suggested that a review of interest-free loan systems for living expenses be undertaken as part of the Government's examination of all third-level funding issues.
"As a standalone measure, the reintroduction of tuition fees is definitely not the panacea," she added.