The Government is poised to produce plans for tackling key higher education funding and policy issues, but the plans are expected to be broadbrush rather than detailed.
Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has told the executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals that she hopes to make proposals on the size, shape, structure and funding of higher education, and that the timetable for considering these issues will be put to the CVCP before its council meeting next Friday.
Her action is in response to the CVCP's threat of a levy on new students in 1997. The decision on whether to endorse the levy was deferred at a CVCP meeting last week to allow vice chancellors to wait for Mrs Shephard's reaction and to gauge attitudes in their own institutions.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of CVCP, said they would want to see evidence that the Government was responding to their concerns: "If it is simply the same old story rewarmed we won't get much further". The levy remains an option, with no final decision necessary until late 1996.
It is expected that the Government proposals will be very broadbrush, leaving most of the detail to be sorted out over a long period. But the CVCP hopes to pin ministers down to a precise timetable for completion of the review, so this can be considered at the committee's annual meeting in September.
Tony Bruce, CVCP head of funding, research and strategy, said: "We will be trying to tie the DFEE down as much as possible on policy and issues. But the timing is the vital thing, given the way the review has been allowed to drift and the goalposts keep moving. We would be very concerned if an agreed timetable were not produced."
The CVCP has already drawn up its own proposals on the future of higher education funding, at the request of Eric Forth, the higher education minister. The paper, due to be submitted to ministers before the end of this month, will reiterate the committee's support for the introduction of income contingent student loans, with repayments made through the national insurance or income tax system.
Mrs Shephard also invited vice chancellors to work with her department to provide further evidence on the impact of the Budget on university finances, and on setting up a small, expert group to look at the scope and limitations of the Private Finance Initiative in making up for big capital funding cuts.
A DFEE spokeswoman said Mrs Shephard had promised to indicate proposals for the next stage of the review as soon as possible, and the long-awaited higher education consultation paper was expected to be published "shortly".