Students could end up paying up to five times as much as they currently do on fees for degree courses at England’s top universities if tuition fees are completely unregulated. This is the prediction of the Sutton Trust report published today based on a study of what has happened to unregulated fees for overseas and postgraduate students in 20 universities.

The report also warns that freezing numbers of home students could be damaging for social mobility, forcing universities to focus on recruiting lucrative international students instead.

The evidence is published ahead of Lord Browne’s forthcoming report on student finance and higher education funding.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Any future finance system that deters poorer students from top degree courses because of spiralling costs and freezes on student numbers will be a double blow for social mobility. At the same time, we need to ensure that universities do not have a financial disincentive to recruit home students from all backgrounds.”

Fees for overseas students have risen to between three and five times the current fees for home undergraduates assuming that current Government subsidies remain, with some courses charging over £20,000 a year, finds the study. It was carried out by Richard Murphy and Steve Machin at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. They reveal a wide variation in unregulated fees, with the most prestigious universities charging twice as much as other institutions in subjects such as physics and economics.

The report shows that the proportional increases in overseas students during the last 15 years has far outstripped those for home students at UK universities. They predict that on current trends the number could grow to 258,000 by 2015 accounting for 1 in 10 undergraduates and half the number of  postgraduates.

The complete removal of the fees cap and the pressure on universities to admit higher paying non EU students could have serious implications for fair access to leading universities, the Trust warns. It also raises concerns that cuts to Government subsidies for fees could lead to particular academic disciplines becoming even more social exclusive.

The Trust calls for financial incentives for universities to recruit poorer students, and giving students from poor homes their first university year for free.

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