UNIVERSITIES will be subject to an unprecedented level of central government control if education secretary David Blunkett is granted reserve powers to regulate top-up fees.
Only a revolt in the House of Lords, with its powerful higher education lobby, stands any chance of preventing the new Teaching and Higher Education Bill giving Mr Blunkett the power to tamper with the freedom of universities to levy additional charges for tuition.
The new bill, published yesterday following a first reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday, proposes to give the education secretary reserve powers on top-up fees. If the bill is passed Mr Blunkett could introduce regulations without further primary legislation.
The bill also clarifies the powers of the higher education funding councils as defined in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. And it provides the legislative framework for the introduction of Pounds 1,000 means-tested undergraduate tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants.
It says that any increase in the level of the tuition fee above the rate of inflation will require the approval of both the Commons and the Lords.
Measures to introduce the new student loans system are also included, with repayments starting only when graduates are earning Pounds 10,000 a year or more. The government has accepted Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation that loan repayments ought to be collected by the Inland Revenue. The government says that this will ensure that the level of repayments is linked directly to graduates' incomes on a month-to-month basis.
The government's message to universities on top-up fees is clear. The Department for Education and Employment said: "The bill contains measures to provide a reserve power for ministers on top-up fees. Ministers have already made clear that "top-up" fees play no part in these new arrangements."
It was unclear at the time of publication at what stage Mr Blunkett would decide to invoke his reserve powers which could ultimately rule fees out as a viable option for any institution.
Many institutions are considering charging students more than the maximum Pounds 1,000 tuition fees. A number of those have the power to charge what they like for tuition, enshrined in royal charters and statutes.
A number of peers seem likely to support institutional autonomy in the face of government attempts to ensure social equity by regulating universities' powers to charge top-up fees. Among peers with strong higher education connections are Lords Beloff, Butterworth, Butterfield, Flowers, Renfrew, Dahrendorf and Desai and Earl Russell.
* Leader, page 13