Leader: Will sweeteners leave sour taste?

May 6, 2005

Variable fees may have turned out to be a misnomer in universities - although not in mixed-economy colleges - but there is plenty of variation in institutions' plans for disposing of the income. No one expected the Office for Fair Access to cajole universities into devoting a majority of next year's windfall to student support and efforts to widen participation, but the results of our survey are nonetheless surprising. While the most "generous" are proposing to recycle up to three quarters of the money as student bursaries, others will spend less than a fifth in this way.

In some respects, this is reassuring for the supporters of top-up fees because it does not bear out predictions that the rich universities would get richer, while those doing most to attract students from poor homes would feel no benefit. Most of the universities that plan to reserve the highest proportion of fee income to invest in staff and improved facilities have a proud record in widening participation. The survey suggests that institutions of all types have been able to exercise choice; time will tell whether they have chosen wisely.

The danger for universities that have found it difficult to recruit enough students with fees pegged at little more than £1,000 a year is that £3,000 will prove too great a deterrent without generous bursaries to sweeten the pill. Yet the balance of educational advantage (even for those who would qualify for bursaries) may lie in employing more staff and improving facilities. And the majority of students, who will receive no financial support, will certainly expect to see some return from the higher charges.

The later years covered by the access agreements will see more convergence in the way fee income is spent. It will be surprising if there is not some decline in applications in 2006, especially among the mature students who are the lifeblood of many new universities. In such circumstances, it makes sense to offer every possible inducement to ensure that places are filled.

In the longer run, however, institutions will want to invest more in raising the quality of courses. Otherwise, what was the point of all the upheaval?

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