Lords expose confusion over right to charge fees
THE government was accused of misleading parliament this week after its controversial Teaching and Higher Education bill fell into disarray in the Lords.
The bill has been criticised for what peers call the "Henry VIII clauses" that give the education secretary unprecedented powers. Peers now argue that they have exposed a fundamental confusion over the right to charge undergraduate tuition fees.
They have called a second committee stage for part 2 of the bill because they tabled the wrong amendments during the first stage which ended this week. Peers say this was because the government was less than open about certain details, leading to a serious misunderstanding over the legal basis of charging fees.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tope said:"The government maintains that the 1962 Education Act gives them the power to introduce and control fees. However a range of leading legal experts says the government is wrong and it has misled parliament."
Earl Russell (Liberal) told The THES that he feared that the government had been deliberately opaque on certain matters to "evade serious challenge in the chamber". Conservative Baroness Blatch said: "Sadly, we are beginning to realise that it is a committee stage that in large part has proceeded on a mistaken understanding of what the government can claim to be the legitimate basis for the policy changes."
Confusion centres on the clauses relating to the imposition of Pounds 1,000 means-tested tuition fees for all home and European-domiciled undergraduates from October. The bill is not designed to authorise the charging of tuition fees but merely to prevent top-up fees.
But when education minister Baroness Blackstone said that the power to charge fees was contained in the Education Act 1962, peers were unconvinced. They say the 1962 act imposes a duty on local authorities to pay student grants. These used to cover tuition costs. Now the government wants students to pay their own tuition costs direct to the university. Earl Russell said: "(The 1962 act) does not create any authority to levy money from the student."
Baroness Blatch said: "The fees referred to are fees that the government paid on behalf of each student. The fees now being charged are a very different matter."
Baroness Blackstone said: "It is precisely because the government does not set university fees that we are seeking reserve powers in clause 18 to prevent universities from charging more than the maximum level of support available to students if necessary." She said the bill would prevent universities charging fees of more than Pounds 1,000 in certain circumstances.
Baroness Blackstone said there was no legal reason why universities could not charge less than Pounds 1,000 though this could jeopardise educational quality. However the bill still states that fees must be "equal to the prescribed amount".
* Details, pages 2 and 3