Former minister voices fee concerns

March 26, 2004

Less popular universities that cannot charge high top-up fees should be subsidised by the state, according to Tessa Blackstone, the former higher education minister who was appointed vice-chancellor of Greenwich University last week.

In an interview with The Times Higher , Baroness Blackstone said: "It is important that institutions that don't feel able to sustain very high charges should not end up in the position where the quality of teaching they provide is much lower.

"We have to have a mechanism by which those places that don't at present get teaching income can do so. I will be putting pressure on ministers and asking questions to ensure that it happens. I am in favour of redistribution so it can support the scheme."

She said she did not believe that teaching funding should be focused on the elite institutions able to charge the highest fees. "Why should students who come to a university get a worse deal because they have poor entry qualifications? I think it's monstrous."

Her concerns echo those raised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which has also questioned whether institutions charging lower fees should be guaranteed a minimum level of state funding to ensure that quality does not suffer. At present, a student attracts the same level of funding no matter which institution they attend. That will change if the higher education bill is passed, as it would allow institutions to charge differential fees from 2006.

Baroness Blackstone, 61, was higher education minister when tuition fees were introduced after Labour's election victory in 1997. She stands by the principle that those who benefit from higher education should pay for it.

But she believes that wealthy parents should be asked to contribute to the cost.

She said: "I don't agree with Charles Clarke (the education secretary) that all young people should be independent of their parents at 18, and I have teased Charles that when his children reach 18, he will find that they are not independent adults and are not autonomous.

"I would have proposed retaining a parental contribution from parents who have paid off their mortgages and can afford to and want to support their children."

Foundation degrees were also introduced on her watch. As vice-chancellor of Greenwich - she takes up the appointment in September - she sees the university well placed to offer the new qualification.

Greenwich has 15,000 undergraduates and 5,000 postgraduates. Half its students are aged 25 or older, 40 per cent are from ethnic minorities and 35 per cent study part time. More than half its students are enrolled on courses in business and administration, education, subjects allied to medicine and computer science.

Baroness Blackstone said: "Foundation degrees are a new and vital way to widen participation and to increase the skills of the workforce - and Greenwich should make a contribution to that."

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