The £9,000 annual fees being introduced by many universities may change the face of higher education far more radically than has yet been envisaged. Not only could it persuade many more school-leavers, especially from poorer families, to stay at home and combine study with paid work. It could also leave some universities struggling, as students choose a more American-style route. They might, for instance, opt for a cheaper foundation course at a local college, before moving on to a better-known university to complete a degree.
This forecast comes from the head of a leading exam board, who warns that newer, mid-ranking universities could then find it hard to survive. This in turn could prompt closures, consolidation – or a wider spread of fees. If some fees are reduced, this would help to vindicate the market-oriented approach. And if students make their choice in the light of how they see their own best interests, that would also be to the good: Labour's 50 per cent target for school-leavers going to university was always too dogmatic. If, though, the result is a sharp fall in university places and students from poorer homes feel excluded, some fundamental rethinking will be needed.