One aspect of the fees debate that is not addressed in the higher education bill or its accompanying student-support package is the position of gap-year students. Ministers had let it be known that these deferring a place until 2006 would have to pay the full £3,000, if that was what their contemporaries were charged. Anyone taking a gap year would know this in advance, so there would be no need for exemptions of the kind when fees were sprung on applicants in 1997.
That argument is correct as far as it goes, sad though it is for those who will miss a valuable experience as a result. But the government should not be too quick to dismiss the amendment promised by the Liberal Democrats, which would leave fees at their current level for those who defer places in 2005. The gap-year industry can look after itself, but the government should consider the consequences for higher education and for its own policy before it takes a hard line. It must be expected that the 29,000 applicants who would normally defer places, and as many again who would otherwise delay applying until after they leave school, will all be clamouring for higher education in 2005. There would then be an embarrassing decline in applications as top-up fees are introduced, magnifying any impact of the new regime. Either universities will have to cope with an unwanted one-year peak in enrolments, and an equally disruptive trough, or thousands of qualified students will be denied places.