72% oppose top-up fees, poll reveals

January 10, 2003

Academic opposition to top-up fees is overwhelming and still growing, according to the first poll of higher education staff since it became clear that students face increased charges.

A THES survey of all universities and colleges shows that if the government goes ahead and introduces top-up fees in its strategy document this month, it could place itself on a collision course with academics. Lecturers - who will have to teach the new students - are the most opposed.

Seventy-two per cent of academics are against allowing universities to charge top-up fees, compared with 68 per cent in a similar survey in 1999. Three-quarters of lecturers and senior lecturers are against top-up fees, compared with 64 per cent of professors and heads of department and 69 per cent of researchers.

However, nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of academics believe that their own university should be allowed to charge top-up fees, with 66 per cent against. Again, opposition is highest among lecturers, with 70 per cent of lecturers and 67 per cent of senior lecturers against.

The introduction of different fees for different courses is seen as inevitable and does not arouse the same opposition. Eighty-five per cent of academics think that in the next five years courses will attract different fees, compared with 72 per cent in 1999. Just over half (56 per cent) disagree with the principle of charging in this way, compared with 59 per cent in 1999.

The survey, which covered academics ranging from researcher and lecturer grades up to professor and head of department, was carried out last month, at the height of the controversy over fees.

Eighty-seven per cent of academics agree that student hardship is damaging academic performance, slightly fewer than in 1999. Ninety-two per cent say that maintenance grants should be reintroduced for poorer students, compared with 96 per cent in 1999.

National Union of Students president Mandy Telford said: "These figures highlight the strength of feeling within the sector on the issues of student hardship and debt. Despite the best efforts of certain ministers to try to divide the sector, it remains clear that lecturers fully support the NUS call for more money and opposition to top-up fees. Lecturers want to teach the best students, they do not want to have to keep fighting for the attention of students who have just finished a lengthy shift in a part-time job."

Sixty per cent of academics agree that now that students pay fees, universities will be more responsive to their demands.

However, academics are more split on whether academic standards have fallen since 1990 - 47 per cent believe they have, while 40 per cent say they have not and 13 per cent do not know.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "For the past 20 years, universities have suffered from chronic under-funding. The number of students per lecturer has doubled, and the amount of money spent on each student has fallen by well over 30 per cent. The system has been stretched to breaking point. We've repeatedly warned governments that chronic underfunding would impact on quality. And so this has proved."

Over half of academics (55 per cent) disagree with the statement that entrance requirements should be less stringent for students from less well-off backgrounds, while 37 per cent agree. Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of heads of department and professors disagree, compared with just half of lecturers.

On quality, 65 per cent of academics believe that it should be possible to withdraw degree-awarding powers from universities failing quality assessments.

Sixty-four per cent of academics disagree with the idea that only high-scoring departments in the research assessment exercise should be funded for research, leaving the rest to concentrate on teaching. But opposition on this appears to have weakened - in 1999, 72 per cent opposed the idea.

Sixty per cent of academics disagree that higher education courses should concentrate more on preparing students for jobs.

Fifty-three per cent believe that the government is right to expand higher education courses in further education colleges.

In all, 414 academics were interviewed for The THES by the Croydon Market Research Centre.




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