Undergraduate fees are on course for a radical shake-up, according to new research that suggests that fees could be doubled without fear of dampening student demand.
According to the findings of David Roberts, chief executive of the Higher Education Information Services Trust, price hikes in some countries have been accompanied by increased enrolments: "There is much irrational fear here about fees, and as a result it has become a political rather than a management issue," he said.
Mr Roberts's report, due in April, will suggest that greater contributions from students and employers are the likely successors to current "price fixing". Variable fees across higher education would then become the norm. Such a shift could see social work courses costing significantly less than say veterinary science.
The research, much of which was carried out recently in New Zealand, tested the impact of price rises on students' buying choices. The suggestion is that fees are not a significant factor in student decision-making, even among low-income groups. "I have come to the conclusion that once students have made a commitment to entering higher education they are reluctant to change their plans," Mr Roberts said. "Among all income groups, it took a very significant price hike to alter their plans."
Even a doubling of the current student fee was unlikely to significantly reduce demand and there was even evidence that increasing the price of education could encourage a growth in enrolments on the basis that "you get what you pay for".
However Rhiannon Evans, director for students at Edge Hill College, who has been conducting research on student fees in Australia, believes large fee hikes are unlikely to appeal to many institutions here.
"Although I have come to the conclusion that the instrumental view of education so predominant in the Antipodes will emerge in the UK, I do not see things moving that far for a long time," Ms Evans said.
Extracts from the report, Fees and Pricing, will be published on March 16 at a one-day Heist conference in Birmingham.