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Leader: Small changes may presage seismic shifts

Behind the sighs of relief over this week's student application figures from Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell  and other supporters of top-up fees, there should be at least a little unease. An overall decline of less than 4 per cent - or 4.5 per cent in fee-paying England - is better than most will have dared to hope for. Although increases in the number of school-leavers will have helped, the fact remains that there are more applicants than in 2004 or previous years. Some departments in some institutions will be threatened, but the appeal of higher education is undiminished. Yet this appearance of stability disguises some potentially seismic shifts in the shape of the system. Among the many predictions for the impact of top-up fees, for example, almost none suggested that Russell Group universities would generally suffer more than the former polytechnics. Those in the new universities who opposed higher fees would not be human if they did not feel a degree of Schadenfreude, although there is sufficient demand for places at the civic universities for any damage to be limited. But if the figures indicate a long-term trend towards vocational courses and home-based study, UK higher education is going to change radically.

Perhaps that is no bad thing: the market has spoken and universities will have to live with the consequences. The Liberal Democrats have long argued that a much larger proportion of students should live at home, while many commentators have fulminated against the expansion of higher education in areas that have no obvious route to employment. If students do not want to take degrees in music or fine art, there will have to be fewer places. Some reordering of the system is inevitable - and probably desirable - but there must always be more to higher education than utilitarianism. The benefits to wider society of the arts and social sciences are at least as important in the long term as the economic benefits from vocational subjects. We must also wait to see a full socio-economic breakdown of this year's applications before final conclusions are drawn on the impact of top-up fees. Mr Rammell says that there has been no drop in the numbers from poor backgrounds, but it would not be surprising if these were the students choosing to study more vocational subjects at institutions closer to home.

Will he be as sanguine about the outcome if the social divide in the more prestigious universities becomes still more entrenched as a result?

It would be dangerous to read too much into the first applications round of the top-up fees era. The decline in demand from mature students that followed the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees did not last, and this year's pattern may be no better indication of long-term recruitment.

There are enough anomalies within the data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to encourage caution in any case. Leeds Metropolitan University appears to have benefited from setting fees below the £3,000 maximum, for example, but Greenwich University hass not.

Students appear to be more influenced by employment opportunities, yet computer science and electronic engineering are both down, despite well-publicised skills shortages in industry.

Strategists in Government and universities should resist the temptation to act too quickly on the apparent messages in this week's figures. In a year's time, applicants may take a calmer view of graduate debt, higher education will have a clearer idea of its immediate funding prospects, and there may be a better indication of whether the £3,000 cap on fees will be raised or even scrapped by 2010. That will be the time to consider whether the market must dictate the shape of English universities, or whether some of their activities can be protected from possibly temporary trends in student choice.

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