A new study will examine the effects of tuition fees on higher education, including the possibility that some universities could close while others become increasingly specialised.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has been given Pounds 158,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a two-year study into the effects of tuition fees on the social composition of the student body and knock-on effects on provision.
Hilary Metcalf, co-director of the study with Martin Weale, said possible scenarios included the closure and/or merger of institutions. This could happen if fees cause students to be more choosy about where they study.
"Fees may cause changes in the student composition such as fewer mature students and more people studying from home. But the study will also look at institutions' reactions to any changes," she said.
"For instance if, because students are paying, they become more choosy about the institutions they go to, then some universities may see numbers fall to the point where they close or have to merge."
Applications by mature people wishing to study full time have fallen since last year's introduction of tuition fees. It is not clear how much of this is due to the financial disincentives of fees and the abolition of maintenance grants or, as the government claims, to demographic factors such as better employment opportunities and the fact that more older people are studying part time.
Ms Metcalf said that research would include case studies of four differing universities including a traditional research-led university and a modern institution committed to widening participation.
The aim is to see whether, in the face of any changes in the student body, these institutions alter their academic provision.
The study is due to be completed by December 2001.