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Fees alter make-up of student body;Opinion

THE row over tuition fees in Scotland may be settled by the usual dose of political fudge, or in the words of the new politics "a mature compromise", but that doesn't make me feel any happier about the fees regime in the UK.

Even if we swallow the unpleasant idea of students being forced to pay for their education, there is another aspect that still feels unfair to me: the fact that overseas students, irrespective of where they come from, pay up to six or seven times the rate charged to Brits. Economic it may be, but in my book, both students and the nation are losing out in the quality of post-school education; and the history of overseas student fees carries a dire warning for the home-student population.

I am not naive about this. Higher education in particular is a huge global business. Lord Dearing has estimated that the global flow of students is around 5 million each year, and rising. The United States is the market leader with around half a million overseas students, but there are other nations which are making a positive bid to attract students from abroad. The Japanese have set a target of 100,000; they're already up to half of that. In Australia, the numbers nearly quadrupled - 17,000 to 63,000 - in the 10 years to 1997.

These countries see overseas students not only as of immediate economic benefit. They bring diversity to the student population, they give the education system an external validation and in the long term, they offer a potentially friendly fifth column, the political class of other countries.

In the UK, though our numbers have risen - roughly doubling to around 100,000 in the past 20 years - we are falling behind others, and we are narrowing the range of students we attract.

Until the end of the 1960s, there was no real differential between different kinds of students when it came to paying fees. Then a bipartisan policy introduced a differential for overseas students, who were puzzlingly defined by residence rather than nationality. In effect, you had to pay the higher rate of fees if for some reason you had lived abroad in any part of the last three years of school; paradoxically if you had attended a British boarding school, or if your parents had worked in the UK for three years, whatever your nationality you would not be liable for the higher rate.

I myself was a victim of this paradox, having spent five years at school in the Caribbean. What made it even worse was the fact that at that time, British students had their fees paid by their local authorities.

Since then, the introduction of fees for all has made life harder for home students. However, there is not yet any evidence of a fall off in demand for higher education among them. But among overseas students something else has happened. Pressure for places is still high, especially for premier league universities like the LSE and Imperial College. However the composition of the overseas student population is altering. We are seeing a lower proportion of Asian students; Africans are increasingly rare, and the students from other developing countries are either sponsored or wealthy. The result, in my view is a student body which is less diverse, and more elite. This is not helped by the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation for students in big cities, in spite of the efforts of such as the International Students' House in London.

What applies in the "export" market may also come to apply to the home market. There will inevitably be an upward drift in the level of fees for all students. It may be too late to prevent the imposition of fees throughout the system; but in the battle which will surely flow from the Scottish compromise, some provision has to be made to prevent universities and colleges returning to the days when entry to higher education was governed more by what was in your bank account than in your brain.

Analysis, 27 Trevor Phillips is a writer and broadcaster who presents The Material World for BBC Radio 4

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