Students who choose less well-worn paths to higher education could end up paying more of the costs, warns a report out this week, writes Harriet Swain.
Latest analysis of education policy in 29 member states by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reveals that the proportion of university and college costs that falls to students and their families varies hugely within countries.
Splits between public subsidy and private contributions depend on the type of student as well as the subject they are studying and type of institution.
The authors of the report say such differences are important for the incentives and disincentives to study they create.
Part-time students face higher costs than full-time in a number of OECD countries, with many demanding higher tuition fees while offering less support.
In some countries, university students are treated more favourably than others. In Japan, most special training colleges charge nearly full-cost fees. The same is true for career schools in the United States.
Elsewhere, science, engineering and medical courses may demand higher tuition fees. This happens in Australia and in some places in New Zealand and the US. On the other hand, extra grants or more favourable loan arrangements are sometimes offered for students in subjects such as science that may offer better job prospects.
Some countries offer more support to younger students. In France, eligibility for student support stops at 26, in the Netherlands, , and in Germany, 30.
The report has found a trend towards parents being expected to contribute to the cost of their child's education to a higher age. Parents are responsible until their child is 24 in the US, Australia and New Zealand. In Austria, parental financial responsibility continues until a child is 26. In Finland and Denmark students are considered financially independent.
In Germany, the US, Japan and Portugal more academically able students pay less towards tuition fees or maintenance. Some governments raise fees or reduce financial support for students who take longer over their degree.
French students pursuing an advanced specialised qualification may follow one of ten pathways through the system with variations between the course and living costs they must pay of more than 40 per cent.
The report warns that evidence from several countries, in particular the US, suggests that participation rates from low-income or lower-class families have not increased with expansion. While the United Kingdom does not follow the pattern, the report's authors say more research is needed in the area.
They say: "Students have different needs and interests and the funding system should be sensitive to this - aiming to provide flexible opportunities rather than assuming that each student will follow a traditional route."
The report suggests that financing arrangements adapted from a time when there was less diverse demand for higher education are not always suitable.
Education Policy Analysis 1998 is available from Stationery Office Ltd, 49 High Holborn, London WC1V 6HB.