Leading Article: Welcome to the real world

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The Independent Online

Of course, we do not yet know the precise details of what the Conservatives are planning to do. However, the big issue in the lifetime of this Parliament is what will happen when the time comes to review the cap on the £3,000 top-up fees in 2009. Now the Conservatives will be able to engage in that debate in a sensible way. Some in the Russell Group of research-intensive universities would like to see universities given the freedom to fix their own fees. Normally, this would be a policy that the Conservatives would have sympathised with because they have par excellence been the party supporting a free market. It was only their opportunistic stance, adopted to curry favour with middle class parents, that got in the way of that. The party may think it is a step too far to go from abolishing all fees to giving the market free reign. But, now that one of its best placed candidates for the leadership has paved the way for a grown-up debate, it will be interesting to see where this ends up.

It certainly looks as though we will be moving towards universities having more freedom to fix their own fees by the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Tony Blair's showing in the general election, which he won comfortably but not with the overwhelming majority of previous times, means that the cap on top-up fees is unlikely to be lifted in 2009. But after that, who knows what will happen. In the meantime, the impact of the first tentative step towards a more market driven approach - the introduction of £3,000 a year top up fees in 2006 - will have to be monitored closely to see what effect it has on demand for university places.