Tuition fees cut to £6,500 but higher for science?

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A final decision on the future of tuition fees is expected early next year

Tuition fees in England's universities could be cut to £6,500 - but with much higher fees, up to £13,500, proposed for some subjects that could lead to higher earnings, such as medicine or science.

That's an idea that seems to be under serious consideration by the prime minister's review of post-18 education, headed by Philip Augar.

Or more to the point, that's what universities are privately fearing is heading in their direction.

Before arts students start celebrating a cut in their fees, it isn't a conclusive decision - that won't be known until the review reports back next year - so this remains the territory of leaks, speculation and self-interested kite-flying.

Different fee levels

But there seems to be a direction of travel towards the idea of charging different levels of fees for different subjects.

The headline rate of £9,250 would be lowered to about £6,500, but more expensive subjects could perhaps be double that at £13,000 or more.

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Should different courses have different fees, based on likely future earnings?

The idea would be that if you were studying medicine, some sciences, maths or engineering, your likely future earnings are going to be higher than if you studied an arts or humanities subject.

It's also the case that arts and humanities subjects - like history or English - are much cheaper to teach than sciences, which require more equipment and have more teaching hours.

As such, there is an argument that there shouldn't be a flat rate for all subjects, and the cost of fees should be adjusted accordingly.

'Two-tier system'

But many universities would hate this with a passion.

They would see this as creating a two-tier system with a lower status for arts and humanities, which would be starved of funding.

They would also argue that such a system is socially regressive - pushing poorer students away from medicine and science subjects and on to other cheaper courses.

Having commissioned a review to tackle concerns that tuition fees and repayment rates are too high, the government will be under pressure to come up with something that looks less expensive.

It's also a time when a government being suffocated by Brexit wants to show it's able to make a difference on the domestic front.

The university sector will want to head off the idea of such a plan for different levels of fees - so expect more briefings, counter-briefings and pre-emptive strikes on changes to tuition fees, as the decision approaches in the next few months.

The Department for Education says the post-18 review will seek value for money for students, but will not comment on speculation or pre-empt the review's findings.