Vice-chancellors should support a flat-rate top-up fee along the lines suggested by Labour MPs Peter Bradley and Alan Whitehead, the chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities said this week.
The call by CMU chairman Michael Driscoll could split universities as Universities UK officially supports variable fees. Some new universities and the vast majority of the top research institutions in the Russell Group are also strongly in favour of variable fees.
The 1994 Group of research-intensive universities, such as Sussex and Durham, also supports the introduction of variable fees.
In a statement put out this week the 1994 Group said: “Universities are confident that under a variable fee regime we will increase the proportion of our student intake from underrepresented groups, and it is the abolition of upfront fees that gives us that confidence.”
Professor Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said that flat-rate fees could provide a lifeline to the government in the face of unyielding opposition from Labour MPs to the higher education bill, which is due to be published next week. The bill would allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year for courses from 2006.
Professor Driscoll said: “A flat-rate fee would go through Parliament quickly and be accepted by the sector.”
But despite the threat of a rebellion by backbenchers, which could sink the bill, the government seems in no mood to negotiate on the point of variable top-up fees.
In his new year statement Tony Blair said it boiled down to a choice between asking for a fair contribution from students, cutting university places or raising general taxation. He said he was confident that the government will get its bill through.
In a letter sent to all Labour MPs in December, education secretary Charles Clarke says: “We remain convinced that, for all the reasons set out in our briefing for the seminars, a variable fee system benefits both students and universities.”
The Bradley-Whitehead proposal is to replace the fee-waiver for the poorest students with substantial grants and set a flat-rate fee of £2,500.
Last year the 1994 Group also put forward proposals to the government that would see the fee-waiver replaced by higher maintenance grants. Unlike the Bradley-Whitehead proposal, however, this scheme kept variable fees. Alasdair Smith, chair of the 1994 Group and vice chancellor of Sussex, has said that the Bradley-Whitehead option would not raise enough money.
The Clarke letter concedes: “We recognise the importance of ensuring that the universities which admit a particularly high proportion of such students [from the poorest backgrounds] should not be disadvantaged by the new arrangements.”
Mr Clarke later listed a “national bursary scheme” as one of the suggestions to have come from rebel Labour MPs, but he gave no indication that this was an option favoured by government.
Professor Driscoll said: “We would see a national bursary scheme as a significant improvement on current proposals.”
Michael Sterling, chair of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: “If this means that we would have to ask our students for fees that would fund students in other universities, we would strongly oppose it.”
Professor Driscoll also called for a “floor on the unit of funding” to prevent universities discounting the cost of courses to the point where quality is damaged.
“Universities wishing to charge below £2,000 should seek approval from the Higher Education Funding Council for England,” he said.
* A loophole that could have allowed students who defer for a year to avoid paying top-up fees will be closed by the government.
Charles Clarke will ensure that students accepted for courses in 2005 who take a gap year will still have to pay the fees that are expected to be introduced in 2006.