Leader: Fees may dry up the postgrad pool

August 4, 2006

Seen from the perspective of an English university, the all-consuming question about top-up fees is the effect they will have on admissions over the next few weeks. There will be time enough to worry about possible changes in the relationship with students, let alone any moves to lift the cap on fee levels at the end of the decade. But the consequences of the change are still becoming apparent in a variety of areas. The sharp rise in inquiries from British students about places at American universities (page 3) is one immediate example. Relatively small numbers may cross the Atlantic for an undergraduate course in the end, but higher fees in England are making the US experience seem more affordable. The Ivy League will still be out of reach for all but the wealthy few, unless some form of financial support is on offer, but other universities will represent an attractive alternative to a UK degree for those who are willing and able to pay a little more.

On this side of the Atlantic, the debate is political as much as academic. The Tories have already bitten the bullet and abandoned their opposition to top-up fees, and now it is the Liberal Democrats' turn to agonise about their policy. Dropping the party's plans for a 50p top rate of tax would make the promise of free tuition hard to sustain (in England at least) but the fees pledge was such a central element of the Lib Dem programme that activists will be loath to change tack. In Scotland, it is out of the question for the party, just as it is for Labour. Indeed, the Scottish National Party is raising the stakes by proposing to scrap the graduate contributions scheme, reintroduce student grants and even cancel the existing debt from student loans. It is talking of a £100 million package to supplement the already considerable cost of keeping Scotland fee-free.

The parties will find their own way out of the inconsistencies that devolution is throwing up. But the longer-term problems raised by the National Postgraduate Committee this week will be more difficult to solve. Undergraduate recruitment looks like surviving the top-up revolution, but it would not be surprising if greater damage was done to postgraduate courses. Polls tend to exaggerate the impact of higher fees on student behaviour, but there is no doubt that taking on extra debt after an undergraduate education will require even greater commitment in future. The likely effect on the pool of talent available for academic jobs is obvious. Until now, widening participation has been almost exclusively about undergraduate courses. But a more socially elitist academic community might have consequences for recruitment at all levels. The value of role models for underrepresented groups is well documented, and the matter will have to be addressed before the NPC's concerns become reality.

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