Campus clash over top-up fees

March 10, 2000

Pressure mounted this week for a second Dearing-style independent review of higher education, as vice-chancellors and students set a collision course over top-up fees.

Student union leaders who staged an anti-fees rally in London on Tuesday called for a new across-the-board inquiry, arguing that recommendations in the first Dearing report were no longer relevant.

Meanwhile, vice-chancellors pressed for a "Dearing 2" in the next Parliament, following their own wide-ranging funding review launched last week.

Arguments for an independent review are the only common ground between vice-chancellors, who are determined to consider top-up fees, and students, who have vowed to oppose them.

The National Union of Students has joined forces with the Association of University Teachers, the college and university lecturers' union Natfhe, the public service union Unison and engineering union MSF, in a "campus coalition" aiming to discredit top-up fees "morally, politically and economically" in the run-up to the next general election.

But policy chiefs for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said it was time to consider a range of options, including switching to an Australian funding model, where students pay differential fees with the option of discounted up-front payments or delayed pay-back until they start earning.

NUS president Andrew Pakes said an independent review was needed to take an in-depth look at fees and update Dearing recommendations, which had become "irrelevant" with the government's drive for expansion in the sector.

"Dearing did not envisage that kind of mass higher education system. If people want to disagree with introducing Cubie's recommendations (on Scottish student finance) here, we need a new inquiry for England and Wales," he said.

Howard Newby, CVCP president, said vice-chancellors, who met last week, were united in their support for a wide-ranging funding review that would take into account the conclusions of a top-up fees study commissioned by the Russell Group of elite research universities. But he thought it was likely that both the CVCP and the Russell Group would also support a further Dearing-style inquiry in 2002.

Tony Bruce, the CVCP's policy chief, added: "We are hoping to influence the party manifestoes with a view to getting them to commit themselves to an inquiry in the next Parliament."

The Department for Education and Employment was non-committal this week. A spokesman reiterated education secretary David Blunkett's recognition that there needed to be an "intellectually rigorous" debate.

But he added: "The secretary of state did not announce there would be another Dearing review in the next Parliament, but merely stated that the original report had recommended a review."

Lord Dearing told The THES: "My committee said that our review should not be seen as a Robbins report with a life of many years, because changes in the sector were moving so quickly. That is why we said there should be another review in five years. There had to come a time when universities would ask if they could continue taking 1 per cent efficiency gains."

Any review would face the task of taking into account big changes in the Scottish system and considering the implications for the rest of the UK.

This week Scottish ministers, funding chiefs, and vice-chancellors, set their face against top-up fees. Henry McLeish, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, warned he did not expect Scottish institutions to charge top-up fees.

A Scottish Higher Education Funding Council spokesperson warned that Shefc would report any institution charging fees to the Scottish Executive "with the possibility of further appropriate action".

Sir Graeme Davies, Glasgow University's principal, said he was opposed to fees.

"You don't respond to financial pressure by saying to your primary customers 'You will pay to get me out of a financial hole'," he said.

Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University, said: "It is difficult to top up fees if you don't have fees. But this raises important questions of comparable funding."

Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham and leader of the Russell Group fees campaign, said it was essential to have an open debate on top-up fees, regardless of any wider review.

A report compiled by Nottingham students, using Cornell Law School in the United States as an example of a differential fees system, found that even students awarded maximum scholarships graduated with debts of about $54,000 (Pounds 33,750).

The report argues that a similar system introduced in the UK would devalue some universities and courses, causing them to close.

Reforms loom, page 4, Howard Newby, page 10

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