Letter: Fee fears and campaign pledges (1)

June 1, 2001

The news that the Blairite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, is backing university top-up fees ("Top-ups back to spook Labour", THES , May 25) should alarm all who oppose the emergence (or strengthening) of a two-tier system in higher education.

New universities are penalised by this government's funding regime and the ending of grants has depressed enrolments by those (mature students, those from families without a tradition of higher education) whom the government claims to want to see in higher education.

Differential fees will accelerate this process. I predict that within a few years of their introduction, there will be "real" universities, which offer a range of subjects but charge huge fees, and the rest (mostly among the new universities), which will have become glorified technical colleges with a small range of subjects.

Despite a few scholarships for the high-status institutions, for most students admission will depend at least as much on ability to pay as on academic prowess. As usual, students from upper and middle-class backgrounds will have many choices as to where and what they study. For the rest, "university" will mean a vocational course in a local technical college - which will still call itself a university even if it offers only a handful of subjects. Meanwhile, new Labour will crow loudly about the extra opportunities it has created in higher education.

As well as re-creating a two-tier system with a vengeance (thus taking us back not only pre-Dearing and pre-Robbins, but pre-1944 as well), this process will have predictable consequences for staff.

Early last year, you printed a letter from me that suggested that education secretary David Blunkett and new Labour were marketising higher education. At the end of this academic year, I face compulsory redundancy from the politics department of a new university, as do more than 50 of my colleagues from a range of departments. This is happening in other universities as well. The root cause of this is the drastic fall in student enrolments prompted by this government's funding policies.

I suggest that rather than waiting for top-up fees to hit, we need to begin a campaign for a proper publicly funded higher education system in which access is by ability and need, not size of bank balance.

In the meantime, thank you Blackstone, Blair, Blunkett; I will remember you on polling day.

Tony Dennis
Leighton Buzzard

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