Admin charge action call

September 4, 1998

STUDENT union leaders have called on the government to use reserve powers against institutions refusing to abandon fee administration charges.

The University of East London and University College Chester are defying advice from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals that all institutions should drop plans to charge students opting to pay fees in instalments.

The CVCP said: "We are asking these universities to offer instalment plans at no extra cost to the student as most others are doing."

But UEL said it would only reduce planned administration charges from Pounds 60 to Pounds 30, while University College Chester said it would go ahead with a Pounds 10 charge. Manchester University, Aston University, Liverpool University and the University of East Anglia have all abandoned administration charges, while Bath University is "considering the situation".

Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, who wrote to Education Secretary David Blunkett earlier this week in protest against the charges, suggested the government should bring powers in the Teaching and Higher Education Act to bear on rebel institutions. The secretary of state has the power to stop institutions from charging more than Pounds 1,000 a year.

"There is no reason why institutions should be allowed to charge students paying in instalments when they do not charge local authorities for paying termly. We think the Department for Education and Employment should take action against these institutions now," he said.

According to a DFEE spokeswoman, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone was "very clear that the charges should not be made". But she declined to comment on the secretary of state's powers to stop charges.

A spokeswoman for UEL said the situation was still under review, "although technically there will be a Pounds 30 charge".

Four Scottish institutions, Heriot-Watt University, Stirling University, Robert Gordon University and Queen Margaret College, have dropped plans for charges, following a hard-hitting message from Helen Liddell, Scotland's education minister. She attacked them in a letter to the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals.

Ronald Crawford, COSHEP's secretary, stressed that decisions were up to individual institutions. "We are asking our members how they are proposing to take account of the minister's concerns," he said.

Richard Baker, president of NUS Scotland, said: "This is a significant victory."

Despite the general climbdown, some institutions still feel administration charges are justified. A spokesman for Aston University said: "There is a suspicion that the cost of administering this system will be more than the government has allowed for."

A spokeswoman for Robert Gordon University said an additional burden fell on universities when students paid by instalments.

Stirling has also underlined the "inevitable" extra costs it faces, but said that following consultation with student president Nick Manton it was continuing to demonstrate its understanding of the difficulties students faced as a result of tuition fees.

Heriot-Watt will not charge students who pay by direct debit between October and the end of February. Students who pay in full by the end of November will receive vouchers for services such as accommodation and catering.

The CVCP said it would be monitoring the actual costs of the new system and would be pressing for a "better deal" if these proved to be in excess of the government's estimate of 5 per cent of fees.

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