Those who prefer evidence to crystal ball-gazing in assessing the likely pattern of top-up fees in England should be keeping a close eye on events in Australia, where universities will be able to charge up to 25 per cent more for their courses from next year. The Russell Group equivalents (the Group of Eight research universities) are expected to charge the maximum in all subjects, but it had been assumed that less prestigious institutions would settle for less. Now Queensland University of Technology has alarmed and angered the government by suggesting that it might go for high fees in order to maintain prestige - a stance condemned by the education minister as "facile, ridiculous and nonsensical".
Where Queensland is leading, however, others will surely follow - in England as well as Australia. And the argument holds for subjects as well as for institutions. Fee income might be recycled as bursaries to attract students onto hard-to-fill courses, but academics and administrators will be reluctant to project the image of a "cheap" subject. The promised UK inquiry into variability may have very little to examine in 2009.
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