FLAT-rate fee charges of Pounds 1,000 per student are unlikely to stave off the pressure of market forces, vice chancellors say. While none has immediate plans to charge top-up fees, they suggest a more flexible system is inevitable in the long term, once the principle has been introduced.
Plans to waive tuition fees for some students, announced by the University of Central England this week, have brought an element of the market to full-time undergraduate courses for the first time.
Some members of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals expect other universities to follow suit eventually by charging either less or more than the Pounds 1,000. Vice chancellors want any fees above Pounds 1,000 to be covered by income-contingent loans.
They do not expect the government's current proposals to be the end of the story and are looking across the Atlantic, where institutions charge vastly different amounts and have scholarships for poorer students.
While official CVCP policy is in full support of the government's fee proposals - so long as the extra money goes into higher education - vice chancellors are already discussing how they might develop.
At a CVCP meeting last week, they expressed concern that the higher education bill, which received its second reading yesterday, might hinder any such development by giving the government power to dictate fee levels.
They would want either; to adopt a pure market approach, with universities setting their price according to the amount they believed the market would bear (part of this sum would be met by loans) or, more likely, to look towards a more flexible, but still regulated system.
Rather than a single national fee, universities would be able to charge different amounts within certain parameters, supported by an income-contingent loans scheme covering the different fee levels.
Central England has told students applying to the faculty of engineering and computer technology and the faculty of the built environment that they will not be expected to pay towards tuition in 1998/99. Nor will they have to pay in future years, provided there is no change in the law or in funding council regulations.
The move, which will cost the university Pounds 250,000, is in response to a large dip in applications to read the two subjects.
Roger King, vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, said: "There is a feeling emerging that we ought to look again, as the CVCP, at funding policy and see what a more deregulated system might be.
"It might become politically acceptable to charge differentiated fees, provided students had access to income-contingent loans."
He said it was something the CVCP would discuss as long-term strategy. "It is not at all clear that new ideas on fees have provided all the policy outcomes originally envisaged," he said.
Kenneth Edwards, vice chancellor of the University of Leicester, said "in the very long term" universities may evolve into different niches which could lead to different costs and fee regulations. He said: "It may be difficult for the system or the government to stand out in the long run against it."
Geoffrey Copland, vice chancellor of the University of Westminster, said present talk on top-up fees was muted. But changes were inevitable in the next 15 years of so and it was important to recognise this.
"We wouldn't want restrictions placed on future actions', he said.
* Bill fallout, page 3
* Lords debate, page 12