College anger grows over 'attempts to dictate fees'

Universities are accused of a lack of respect in the row over partnerships. Hannah Fearn reports

April 28, 2011

Anger over the treatment of local colleges by universities continues to fester.

Some colleges have seen universities pulling out of partnerships after funding cuts, while others claim they are having tuition fee levels imposed upon them.

Sue Daley, principal of Boston College, said she felt "badly let down" after the University of Lincoln withdrew student places. She argued that universities were behaving in an "unaccommodating and uncooperative" way.

Bad feeling has been exacerbated by a belief among some colleges that universities are attempting to force them to set tuition fees at a prescribed level.

In a letter seen by Times Higher Education, the University of Plymouth tells its partner colleges that it anticipates that they will set a minimum fee of £6,000.

"Preliminary work has been undertaken at the university to examine the realistic cost of delivering the high quality educational experience associated with a University of Plymouth award," says the letter from Mary Watkins, deputy vice-chancellor.

"It is therefore expected that the minimum basic fee level for a full-time student studying for a foundation degree over two years...will be at least £6,000 per annum."

Such pressure is likely to be frowned on by David Willetts, the universities minister, who wants alternative providers to introduce price competition in the sector.

Ben Verinder, spokesman for the Association of Colleges, said the letter was typical of those sent out by universities across the country.

"The main point about this process is that this is a partnership, and a variety of colleges don't feel they have been treated with respect," he said.

Ms Daley said her attempts to foster a close relationship between Boston College and Lincoln had largely failed. "Over the five and a half years I've been principal, we've made repeated attempts to engage Lincoln in partnership and we've had many fine words but nothing's happened," she told THE.

Last year, Lincoln withdrew its support for a foundation degree in health and social care at the college, and Ms Daley said neighbouring Grantham College and New College Stamford had also had student places and validation arrangements withdrawn.

"We were told that the cuts were as a result of funding cuts to higher education, though we knew perfectly well that they did not affect part-time students," she said.

Ms Daley said she was pleased to hear Mr Willetts' recent warning that universities must not "squeeze" colleges out of the market, but said that the only solution was direct funding for higher education courses delivered by further education colleges.

Scott Davidson, deputy vice-chancellor (teaching quality and student experience) at Lincoln, said the university had faced tough decisions in an "unstable" fiscal climate.

"We are still in the process of setting our fees and we don't know what kind of impact this is going to have on student numbers," he said.

"I don't think we should necessarily be going back to franchising arrangements and validation. We need to look at much more creative ways of interacting."

A spokesman for Plymouth said: "The actual fee is a matter for our partner colleges and is not dictated directly by the uni- versity.

"The colleges have all responded in the spirit of partnership and advised us of their planned fee, which is not the same across the network."

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