Blackstone rules out top-up fees

September 29, 2000

Differential tuition fees were ruled out for the foreseeable future by the higher education minister, Tessa Blackstone, speaking at the Labour Party conference this week.

She also hinted that universities could expect more money when the second and third years of the spending review are announced next year.

The Labour Party conference in Brighton is expected to be the last before the next general election. Much of the debate is likely to inform the party's election manifesto.

Baroness Blackstone told The THES: "We think that differential fees would hit middle-income families very hard, and many parents would be saying to their children: faced with going to University A for one price or University B for a lower price, go to the less expensive institution."

Speaking at a fringe event organised by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Social Market Foundation, she added: "I accept that if we go down this route (of charging differential tuition fees) it may be all right for the very rich; it may be all right for the very poor. But there will be large numbers of people from middle incomes trying to shop around for which university was cheaper, and that would be very bad for higher education."

Baroness Blackstone reiterated that the government had introduced legislation making it impossible for institutions to charge differential fees and still receive public funding. "Top-up fees have no part in our policies," she added.

Sir Howard Newby, president of the CVCP, said: "I know of no (vice-chancellors) who would support (differential fees) if public funding were adequate."

On the subject of tuition fees, he added: "It is fundamental that we find the right balance between those who can contribute - parents, students themselves and business. What that balance will be is the focus of our CVCP study."

Sir Howard highlighted the financial problems faced by universities, saying: "(The spending review) has reversed the decline in the unit of resource - but there is more to be done on the teaching and learning infrastructure, and investment in human resources is also needed. It is very important that universities can attract the next generations of staff."

The minister said earlier: "I am sympathetic to university teachers. I cannot tell you what years two and three of the spending settlement are yet, but I think that pay increases should go to the most deserving groups of staff. My hope is that the money will be forthcoming."

The fringe meeting discussed how to increase access to universities while maintaining excellence. Baroness Blackstone rejected claims that the new funding arrangements had deterred poorer students. She ruled out the possibility of an independent inquiry into the impact of the new funding arrangements and rejected a call for the reintroduction of the maintenance grant for the poorest students.

She said: "We are categorically not going to go back to a maintenance grants system."

Rather than altering the student support system, the country would widen participation by raising the aspirations and achievements of school-leavers, she added.

Secretary of state for education David Blunkett told the conference that universities had seen improvement in the unit of funding for the first time. He pointed to the work being done on improving access through the funding of 10,000 opportunity bursaries and to a 10 per cent real-terms increase in funding for further education.

Conference reports, page 3

Leader, page 14

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