University vice-chancellors are engaged in a desperate battle to get the higher education bill through a "knife-edge" vote at its second reading.
Universities UK is demanding unity from all member vice-chancellors. It appears to have the backing of all major groups of universities in the run-up to the vote, expected on January .
UUK is so concerned about the passage of the bill that it has employed City PR firm Finsbury to help it lobby MPs. A spokesperson said Finsbury would provide "an extra pair of hands". The spokesperson declined to say how much the firm was being paid.
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, is among those now supporting the bill. The CMU had been worried that variable fees would be disadvantageous to member institutions.
But Professor Driscoll told The THES : "There has been serious movement in the government's position, and we can claim success in improving the lot for poor students and poorer universities."
Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor of Sussex University and chairman of the 1994 Group of universities, said: "We are unambiguous in support of the bill. Our message to Labour rebels is that the government has put forward a package that will help students from poorer families."
The UUK board held a special meeting last Friday. Afterwards, UUK chief executive Baroness Warwick sent an urgent note to all members. She wrote:
"It is in the interests of the whole of the sector that the second reading should be passed."
Vice-chancellors were urged to do all that they could to persuade their local MPs to support the bill.
In a statement, UUK president Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "This bill marks a critical point for the future of higher education. It makes an important and welcome contribution to addressing the financial problems of universities."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group of research-led universities, said: "If the bill goes down, it will be a disaster."
But Professor Sterling's insistence that the Russell Group would have preferred a higher cap on the fee, set at £3,000, continues to alarm some vice-chancellors.
Professor Driscoll said: "The Russell Group statements could fuel fears among rebel Labour MPs of an early fee hike."
Oxford and Cambridge universities support the bill. Cambridge vice-chancellor Alison Richard said: "The publication of the higher education bill today is an important step in the process of tackling years of underfunding in the university sector."
But UUK is yet to secure blanket support from its members.
Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said: "I have been speaking to my local MPs and made clear my opposition to variable fees."
He was scathing about the government's insistence that there was no alternative to its proposals. "Government cannot abdicate responsibility like that," he said.
Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University and a supporter of a flat-rate fee, said that he would be encouraging his local MPs to support the bill. "The balance of the advantage lies in getting the bill past second reading. It is important to secure the income-contingent repayments and the improved grant and loan."
Once the bill is past its second reading, UUK is likely to push for changes in the Office for Fair Access. The UUK statement said: "We will be looking at the legislation in detail to ensure that it does not open the way for Offa to determine admissions criteria or interfere in admissions decisions, which must remain a matter for individual institutions."
WHO'LL GET WHAT
* £18 million better off if it charges all its 10,000 home and European Union full-time undergraduates the full £3,000 fee
* £30 million in total fee income if it charges all students the maximum fee
* Would have to spend at least £1.6 million of its fee income on bursaries, as 53 per cent of its students are on full fee remission.
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor, said: "We will have to pay out significant bursary monies, but when you compare this with an overall increase in funding of £18 million then you can see why I will be encouraging our local MPs to support the bill."
* £.4 million better off if it charges all its 14,637 home and EU full-time undergraduates the full £3,000 fee
* £43.9 million in total fee income
* Would have to spend at least £1.2 million on bursaries, as 26.6 per cent of its students are on full fee remission.
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor, said: "We have always planned to put as much into bursaries as we can. Our bursaries will be above the government minimum."
* £11.3 million better off if it charges all its 6,030 home and EU full-time undergraduates the full £3,000 fee
* £18.1 million in total fee income
* Would have to spend at least £570,000 in bursaries, as 31 per cent of its students are on full fee remission.
Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor, said: "We are assuming we would also have to pay a partial bursary to students on partial fee remission, so we would actually spend at least £700,000."