Removing the cap on tuition fees could lead to an exponential rise in fees without any corresponding improvement in the teaching of students, a vice-chancellor warned this week.
Drawing on the US experience, where fees have risen by as much as 51 per cent in the past ten years, Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, said that poor US students had been priced out of some institutions while higher charges had done little to improve teaching.
He said that the UK risked falling into the same trap of price before quality after the introduction of £3,000 top-up fees this year and with the prospect that the cap could be raised after a government fees review in 2009.
The warning precedes a report due out next week from the Higher Education Policy Institute that reveals significant variations in the number of hours of teaching students get for their money at UK universities. It also confirms that prestigious research-led universities tend to rely on postgraduates to teach undergraduates more than newer institutions.
At the Association of University Administrators conference this week, Professor Brown spoke of the situation in the US: "Far from increased competition leading to a lowering of prices, as conventional economic theory would suggest, prices actually increase."
This reflected the strong role that prestige played in higher education, he said. Institutions with strong reputations based on research rather than teaching could charge much more than others, as students and universities chase "status". He added: "What we have is not market competition but positional composition."
A US government commission on the future of higher education, which reported this summer, called for greater accountability for teaching standards at US institutions, said Professor Brown, who headed the Higher Education Quality Agency in the 1990s. He said that the UK needed a new body to ensure accountability in teaching. "It should be an audit body, a cross between the Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England."