Some three-year degree courses could be lengthened to four years, costing students an extra Pounds 1,000 in tuition fees,education researchers warned this week.
The introduction of fee-paying may mean the Government will decide it can afford to let institutions lengthen courses in subject areas where students would benefit from an introductory year's teaching, according to Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.
Subjects such as mathematics, physics and engineering, where institutions have been complaining about a steady decline in the ability of new applicants, would be the most likely candidates for a four-year degree, Professor Smithers said.
"We have a very high standards threshold for entry into higher education, which is one reason why we have managed to keep our degree courses down to three years, rather than four to six as in other countries.
"The Government has tried to resist extending degrees to four years, because it would be the taxpayer who would be paying for it. But with the introduction of fees, there could be much more flexibility as we move to a mass system," he said. "Some students who need to catch up may need an extra year, but they will have to pay an extra Pounds 1,000 for it. Others who are up to speed may just do the three years."
But Tony Tait, Further Education Development Agency education officer, said moves to set up a national credit accumulation and transfer system spanning further and higher education could lead to shorter degrees - saving money for students.
A national credit system, which is endorsed by the Dearing inquiry and the Kennedy committee and which is the aim of a Government-backed scheme involving groups of universities and colleges across the country, would encourage further education and sixth-form students to demand exemption from parts of degree courses, he said.
"There could be many common units of learning in the same subject area at furthereducation and higher education level If institutions wanted to take advantage of a credit system, they could credit people who had already gained certain units at A level or equivalent, and effectively fast-track them through a degree," Mr Tait said. "Students who are paying Pounds 1,000 a year for tuition would welcome that."