Introduction This article sets out to explore the impact of student self-financing systems on inequalities of access to higher education (HE) in two nation-states, England and Australia. It aims to show that the historical development of HE and the degree and nature of system differentiation can be seen as a powerful explanatory tool in the comparative analysis of structural HE policy-making. The analysis of the two cases presented here encompasses three of the main themes of this special issue: the expansion of HE in response to the needs of the national economy; globalisation and the changing labour market; and social pressures for equity in access to HE. These and other factors, such as the
growing role of the central state and the marketisation of HE are analysed to explore the specific development and impact of student self-financing systems in each case. Given that fees/bursary regimes can be conceptualised as market signals that service diversity within HE sectors (McCaig 2010; McCaig and Adnett 2009) such regimes can be both indicative of the trajectories of differentiation and symptoms of differentiation. In the English case the historical trajectory is towards diversification with relative institutional autonomy fuelled by the market; in Australia the historical trajectory is towards the homogenisation of the sector, with little autonomy and the market’s effects largely restricted to non-university HE providers.