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Fees keep up with the Joneses

Whose who prefer evidence to crystal ball-gazing in assessing the likely pattern of top-up fees, in England or (eventually perhaps) in Scotland, should be keeping a close eye on events in Australia. There, universities will be able to charge up to 25 per cent more for their courses from next year.

The Australian equivalents of the so-called Russell group of elite universities (the Group of Eight research universities) are expected to charge the maximum in all subjects, but it had been assumed that less prestigious institutions would settle for less. Now Queensland University of Technology has alarmed and angered the government by suggesting that it might go for high fees in order to maintain prestige and not be seen as a low-price option - a stance condemned by the country's education minister as "facile, ridiculous and nonsensical".

Where Queensland is leading, however, others will surely follow - in this country as well as in Australia. And the argument holds for subjects as well as for institutions. Fee income might be recycled as bursaries to attract students to courses that are hard to fill, but university leaders will be reluctant to project the image of a "cheap" subject. The promised inquiry into the effects of variable tuition fees in England, introduced to buy off the Government's backbench rebels, may have very little to examine in 2009.

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