Taught postgraduate courses in England could become "completely populated" by overseas and wealthy home students if fees rise to unaffordable levels in the wake of reforms at undergraduate level, the government has been warned.
There are fears of an impending crisis due to growing uncertainty over teaching funding and the decision not to extend state support to postgraduates, who in future will be saddled with huge debts from their first degrees.
Taught postgraduate subjects are currently supported by £150 million in recurrent teaching funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, £110 million of which comes from the mainstream grant that is being cut by 80 per cent by 2014-15.
The coalition government has yet to specify whether taught postgraduate funding will be affected, and no mention was made in last month's grant letter from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Geoff Whitty, who retired at the end of December as director of the Institute of Education, University of London, said that it was "difficult to make any real assumptions about how we should proceed" given the lack of clarity.
"Undergraduate funding has been the hot political issue because it affects votes in elections, but in terms of the long-term health of British universities and the economy we really need to see postgraduate education as vital," Professor Whitty said.
"If you look around the world, this is the area the more competitive economies are developing."
He wrote to Lord Browne of Madingley last October to express his disappointment that the Browne Review had not helped postgraduates and said the lack of state support would be felt more keenly than ever, with part-time students hit hardest as they pay off their undergraduate debt at the same time.
"The fear is that some courses will be completely populated by international students and wealthy home students. As more and more people get undergraduate degrees, the widening participation issues at a postgraduate level will come to the fore," he warned.
There is also uncertainty about funding for postgraduate qualifications in specific areas such as health and teaching, where investment is made through the budgets of other government departments.
Professor Whitty added that specialist postgraduate providers were at risk of suffering the greatest damage, as they could not cross-subsidise from undergraduate income.
But even if the relatively small amount of Hefce funding for taught postgraduate courses is kept, there are concerns that the prices of programmes will be affected by the knock-on effect of cuts and higher fees for lower-level qualifications.
Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said that with undergraduate fees rising sharply from 2012, it would not be sustainable for institutions to hold down postgraduate charges, especially as those courses are typically more intensive.
"It would be a hard argument for any university to make, both politically and economically, to say, for example, we're still only going to charge £3,500 for a taught master's in English without someone saying 'Aren't you heavily subsidising that programme - and if you're not, what's the teaching provision like?'," he said.
"All those sort of discussions would surface very quickly. I can't see any other outcome."
Professor McCrae said he thought some research-focused universities might charge higher annual fees for master's degrees than for undergraduate degrees to reflect the more intensive teaching.
Meanwhile, courses in business and economics, with direct paths into well-paid professions, would continue to charge market rates of more than £10,000, he said.
He added that, in his view, demand for taught postgraduate qualifications would be affected less by fees than by the employment market and whether graduates feel they need a higher-level qualification to get a job.
But Paul Tobin, who represents taught postgraduates in the National Union of Students, said the prospect of such fees without state support was "frightening".
"Droves of people will be unable to study at postgraduate level," he said, adding that fees could go up "without any discernible increase in quality".