Student leaders have warned that some universities are in danger of pricing themselves out of the overseas higher education market, as new figures reveal a yawning gap in the cost of tuition.
The difference in the annual fees for similar undergraduate courses for overseas students is as high as Pounds 7,000, while there is a gap of up to Pounds 4,000 in taught postgraduate programmes and MBA students can pay up to Pounds 10,000 more than the cheapest course.
Figures from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals this week show that for 1999-2000 overseas students will pay from Pounds 5,592 to Pounds 7,709 per year for an undergraduate arts degree, from Pounds 5,959 to Pounds 9,308 for a science, and from Pounds 11,525 for a clinical medicine degree. Data has been adjusted to cancel out extremes.
The ranges at taught postgraduate level are from Pounds 5,760 to Pounds 7,740 for arts, Pounds 6,000 to Pounds 9,375 for science and Pounds 14,050 to Pounds 17,750 for clinical. MBA students can pay from Pounds 6,288 to Pounds 16,250.
The British Council's promotions arm, the Education Counselling Service, said the gap has widened over the past three years.
But ECS chief Allan Barnes said overseas students received enough information about British institutions and courses to make a sophisticated decision based on price, quality and facilities.
He said: "It is up to the institution to position itself in the market, to decide what to charge, and take the risk that it can find enough customers at that price."
Overseas student representatives are worried, however, that university attempts to cash in on niche markets could mean spiralling charges.
Clive Saville, chief executive of the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, said some fees appeared to have increased by up to 10 per cent in the past year.
"What concerns us most is the plight of the continuing student. It is very hard if they make a fine decision about where they can afford to go, only to find fees rise each year by twice or three times the rate of inflation," he said.
Student leaders at Sheffield University have complained about plans to consider raising overseas student fees by thousands to "maximise profits".
Sheffield international students secretary Chris Ng said: "It seems courses for overseas students are now viewed as just a business. It is not a service any more."
But a spokesman for the university said the aim was to "increase, rather than maximise, profits", which might in some cases mean lowering fees to attract more students.