When the Government allowed universities to raise their tuition fees to £9,000 a year, it appeared that ministers expected a market to break out that would rate establishments and courses differently. That may be the eventual result. But the immediate consequence was that almost every university in the land raised its tuition fees to the maximum, or almost. The knock-on effects are now becoming apparent, and it is hard to believe that the architects of the policy intended all, or even any, of them.
There has been a fall of almost 10 per cent in applications from students in England, who will have to pay the higher fees, compared with a much smaller fall for students in Scotland. While the drop in England is not as steep as many had feared – and part of it may reflect the increased numbers applying last year to avoid the rise – the decline is still sharp, and it suggests that some of those who would be qualified and would benefit from a university education are choosing not to avail themselves of the opportunity – which is unfortunate. That a disproportionate number of those deterred appears to comprise mature students should be of particular concern.
Another effect has been to favour those establishments able to attract higher-paying foreign students. Universities that primarily serve the local population could thus suffer a double penalty. On the one hand, they now have fewer local applicants; on the other, they will not be able to make up the shortfall with students from outside the EU. Certain courses, mainly in arts and languages, have also lost out, raising the possibility that some colleges might have to close.
It can be argued that some of what is happening could in time produce universities that are better all round. The Labour government was undoubtedly misguided in wanting 50 per cent of school-leavers to go on to higher education. Britain probably has more universities than it needs, with courses that are not always up to scratch. A shake-out may not be a bad thing. But if this is what ministers aimed for when they sanctioned higher fees, they should have said so. As it is, with the figures out today, the policy looks fraught with unintended consequences.