Top-ranking universities look for protection from deep cuts, while up to 40 institutions are braced for a financial struggle
Britain's university system has always been hierarchical: the most prestigious expect to be ranked among the world's leading institutions, while their lower-ranked peers are too often recognised only for improving the chances of the poor.
Now the system is expected to undergo the most far-reaching shakeup for decades, and it is likely to become even more stratified. The elite have yearned to charge as much as their Ivy League competitors in the US, some of whom demand as much as £23,000 a year. A dramatic rise in income would protect the most prestigious from deep cuts over the next few years.
Higher fees would mean they could move towards lavish, US-style bursaries so that students from the poorest homes are not deterred from studying by fear of debt. Able to attract the brightest academics and students internationally, the top universities would find their already considerable reputations rocketing.
Many would respond by making their courses even more internationally relevant. Some, like University College London, have started to develop a liberal arts degree. The course, common in the US, mixes the humanities and sciences, for instance. UCL's provost, Malcolm Grant, says it creates "global citizens" rather than students with "a narrow view of the world".
While the elite prosper, the rest will undoubtedly be worse off. Some 30 or 40 – a quarter of the sector – will struggle financially. They recognise that they cannot charge £7,000 or £10,000. Their students simply wouldn't – or couldn't – pay.