Alternative funding for higher education, including tuition fees, is needed if expansion is to continue, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development education ministers have agreed.
In a final communique after their five-yearly meeting held at the headquarters in Paris this week, the ministers stated that new sources of funding will be required everywhere. Ministers discussed partnerships with business, tuition fees, deferred contribution schemes and changes to the balance between student grants and loans.
Tuition fees and a switch from grants to loans are extremely sensitive issues for some OECD countries. This was the first time such options were tabled for discussion at OECD ministerial level.
An initial step was taken when education ministers last met in 1990 and concluded that "new approaches to the financing of post-school education and training must be considered."
This week, the ministers' communique pointed out that "taking account of their different circumstances, countries will need to strike a new balance between the contributions of individuals, employers, workers and society collectively".
Any more direct recommendation of particular options would have been unacceptable to certain states. French education minister Francois Bayrou, who did not show up at the two-day meeting, was categoric in his response to the fee-paying option. "I won't let myself be talked into it. France has a tradition of public, free education and there would be a serious crisis if that was undermined. I hope our partners understand that," he said.
But France's university presidents' conference favours increasing enrolment fees from their token Pounds 100 a year.
In Germany the OECD's move is likely to strengthen the pockets of support for fees on all sides of the political spectrum in opposition to federal education minister Jurgen Ruttgers's unpopular plan to charge interest on student loans.
Supporters are also encouraged that the introduction of fees at the private university of Witten-Herdecke last year did not result in the predicted student exodus.
Next month the conference of university rectors will vote on a plan to charge students DM1,000 (Pounds 440) per semester. Only a slender majority of the 240 rectors is believed to support it and students have already staged protests.
The education ministers called on the OECD to "deepen its analysis of policies which offer incentives for learners, their families, employers and other partners to mobilise larger investments for learning and which promote cost-effectiveness, equity and quality in tertiary education".
Before the meeting the OECD said that the ministers would discuss how far enrolment should be allowed to increase, but no direct reference appeared in the final communique.
Instead it said ministers agreed to give "high priority to broadening what is offered . . . in tertiary education so that it presents a diverse range of options after compulsory schooling."