Bill delay causes fee chaos

February 20, 1998

THE government has admitted that delays in the House of Lords to the Teaching and Higher Education Bill could stop it being implemented in time for next academic year.

The admission came in a letter from education minister Baroness Blackstone to Liberal Democrat education spokesman Lord Tope. In the letter, leaked to The THES, Baroness Blackstone wrote: "I am concerned that delaying the bill further could imperil implementation this summer of many of the provisions on which we all agree."

The government could go ahead with the planned introduction of tuition fees this autumn without the bill being passed because universities already have the power to charge fees to home and European undergraduates. But it would be loath to do so without the bill's anti top-up provisions in Clause 18, one section under attack.

The government knows that the country's top research universities, known collectively as the Russell Group, would seriously consider charging fees above the maximum Pounds 1,000 set by the government if there is no extra money for the sector.

This much is clear from a letter from the Russell Group to secretary of state for education David Blunkett. It reveals that the 17-member group sees little wrong with differentiated fees as long as access is protected through scholarships and bursaries.

Despite Baroness Blackstone's private plea to Lord Tope, who was abroad this week and unavailable for comment, the Department for Education and Employment was officially denying timetable worries. The position will be clearer on Monday when Lord Tope's motion for recommital of part II of the bill, containing Clause 18, is due to be heard.

Lord Tope has written to Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers asking for support. He said: "We have asked for recommitment because we do not believe it was made clear to the House, either at second reading or committee, exactly on what basis tuition fees were to be introduced. We believe that there are many important questions that need to be asked since the whole power to raise tuition fees rests entirely in private law and cannot therefore be made compulsory on any university. The implications of this have not been fully explained."

Baroness Blackstone's letter to Lord Tope acknowledged that "there has apparently been some confusion and misunderstanding about the government's existing powers", and offered to allow the broadest possible debate on Clause 18 at the report stage as an alternative to recommitment. Discussions on this are continuing.

The government was hoping to persuade the Conservatives not to support the Liberal Democrats. Conservative spokeswoman Baroness Blatch, who was to meet Baroness Blackstone on Wednesday, said she had never seen such a state of chaos in the DFEE. She said that Conservative peers would vote with the Liberal Democrats.

Lady Blatch welcomed a delay. She said: "Many of the regulations have not even been drafted, let alone laid before Parliament. Students are in complete uncertainty."

Douglas Trainer, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We want a constructive debate and to find positive amendments to rule out tuition fees while improving the quality of higher education."

Russell group threatens to charge HEFCE decides student numbers, page 7

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