Top-up fees and restrictions on research funds represent the public face of the government's proposed higher education "market". But student enrolment figures published this week show that fissures are already emerging in the system. Last autumn for the first time in almost a decade, admissions officers were free to recruit as many students as they wanted, and the impact was dramatic: some civic universities increased their intake by up to 1,000 students, while further education colleges and some new universities saw numbers drop.
The losers in this initial free-for-all were not as numerous or as wounded as commentators had predicted - even where there had been a dip in applications, recruitment targets were usually met. But the signs for the future remain ominous for those that struggled. Some have seen a further slump in applications for 2003, begging questions about the pool of candidates from which places will be filled. Unless academically weak recruits receive the additional support they need, they run the risk of adding to dropout rates.
With demand for higher education relatively flat even before fees are increased, the share of the market going to its big names seems certain to rise. To some extent, this was what was intended when recruitment limits were abolished, but it is bound to add to the instability that other white paper proposals will produce. Some institutions, including leading lights in widening participation, are going to need support, not brickbats, in the next few years.