Back bill, Crewe urges red rebels

July 18, 2003

White paper: Labour rebels warned. Tory unease surfaces. grant threshold raised.

The new president of Universities UK has taken on Labour rebels, warning them that if the higher education white paper fails, universities will be forced to cut jobs and close departments.

Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "We need to make sure politicians understand just how serious for universities it is to lose the additional income offered by variable fees. There will be fewer student places, important subjects will not get taught and the quality of provision will be under threat."

Professor Crewe, who takes over as president from Roderick Floud on August 1, said the UUK submission to the 2004 spending review would stress the serious shortfall in cash for teaching. "Funding for teaching infrastructure is wholly inadequate for the number of students we have already, for the increase the government wants and for the projected increase in demand," he said.

Referring to a Higher Education Policy Institute report, which has projected demand from an extra 180,000 students by 2010, Professor Crewe said: "Unless universities are appropriately funded, large numbers of well-qualified people will not get a university education."

Expansion would exacerbate staff shortages, he said. "We have a growing problem with staff recruitment, partly an issue of salaries but aggravated by the fact that we are an ageing profession."

Professor Crewe criticised the degree of research concentration proposed in the white paper. "It is not in the national interest to take funding away from grade 4 departments. Today's grade 4 departments are the nurseries for tomorrow's 5*s," he said.

He welcomed much of last week's education and skills select committee's report on the white paper, particularly its opposition to research concentration, but remained neutral on the proposal to lift the cap on fees to £5,000.

Michael Sterling, the new chair of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, gave a more enthusiastic welcome to the select committee's proposals to lift the cap on fees to £5,000. "This will allow a proper market to develop," he said.

Michael Driscoll, chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, warned that the support of many vice-chancellors in new universities for top-up fees was "highly conditional".

"If the government claws back money through a reduced grant and if the fear of debt does deter poorer students, then that qualified support will go," he said.

• The "snobbish" self-interest of universities seduced a Labour-dominated select committee into producing a "whitewash" report calling for £5,000 top-up fees, former education minister George Mudie said this week, writes Alan Thomson.

Labour backbencher Mr Mudie, lifelong learning minister from 1998 to 1999, said members of the education and skills select committee had swallowed the universities' line on underfunding at the expense of the students who will be asked to pay.

Two staunch Labour opponents of top-up fees, Kerry Pollard and Jeff Ennis, put their names to the report, having been persuaded that higher fees were necessary. Conservative members of the committee also signed off the report, even though it is Conservative Party policy to abolish tuition fees.

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