University hopes to make high impact in market with low charges. Claire Sanders reports
Leeds Metropolitan University this week became the first institution to opt for fees as low as £2,000 a year for degrees, undercutting its rivals by up to £1,000 and raising the prospect that others may follow suit.
Governors voted unanimously to back plans put forward by Simon Lee, the vice-chancellor, to charge an annual flat-rate fee of about £2,000 for all the degrees offered by Leeds Met.
Other universities are thought to be considering charging less than the maximum annual fee of £3,000. So far, however, none has taken the plunge amid fears about the financial impact of discounting and worries that a low fee will carry the stigma of low quality.
Professor Lee said: "I am pleased to be setting a precedent and would be quite happy if we were the only university in the country to charge around Pounds 2,000. It would give us a clear position in the market."
Nimble Thompson, chair of the board of governors, said: "We have a distinctive position made possible by our long-standing commitment to widening participation, our economies of scale and our vision."
The governors did, however, impose two conditions. First, the university must satisfy the Office for Fair Access that its proposals will not disadvantage any students.
Professor Lee said: "This university has a great record on widening participation and won't need to have more targeted bursaries in light of the across-the-board low fee."
He said the university aimed to build relationships with its students that would last a lifetime. "Our students will leave with a lower debt. The long-term benefit of studying at Leeds Met will be clear," he said.
Second, the governors said, the university has to improve its estate - its city-centre buildings must match the standard of those on the Headingley campus.
Professor Lee said: "We inherited unfortunate buildings in the centre of Leeds, which we plan to demolish. There will be dramatic changes in our estate in the next few years."
David Hayes, president of the Leeds Met Students Union, said: "Our university is not devaluing its degrees by charging less than £3,000.
We believe that pricing people out of higher education would devalue our institution by not allowing such a diverse range of students to continue their education."
The university plans a publicity campaign to get its fees message across to students. The marketing is likely to capitalise on the university's reputation for producing great rugby league players. Leeds Met issued a press release this week trumpeting its "low-charging, high-impact" message.
The university, which has a number of links with further education colleges in the area, is negotiating with its partners about what it will charge for foundation degrees.
Last month, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Park Lane College under which the college will deliver nine foundation degrees validated by the university. Successful completion of the foundation degrees will allow students to progress to Leeds Met to do a one-year top-up for a full degree.
V-c proud to be a pioneer
Simon Lee is happy to be called a maverick. "I am a Catholic lawyer by background - we have a long history of opposition," he said, before citing Sir Thomas More as a role model.
Professor Lee took over Leeds Metropolitan University from Leslie Wagner in September 2003 after eight years as rector of Liverpool Hope University College and a period at Queen's University, Belfast, as dean of the faculty of law.
He is used to adversarial situations. "When I went to Northern Ireland in the 1980s, people said the peace process would never work. But academics played a key part in that and it moved forward," he said.
Professor Lee co-founded Initiative 92, which established the Opsahl Commission - the body that initially encouraged Sinn Fein to talk to the Government.
"There are not many things that I see as insuperable," he said. "When I came to Liverpool Hope, Taggart Avenue - which divided the buildings - was seen as an insuperable problem.
"The Berlin Wall had come down, apartheid had folded, peace had started to come to Northern Ireland - I really couldn't see Taggart Avenue as a problem."
He sees £2,000 fees in that light. "My predecessor, Professor Wagner, pioneered foundation degrees, which are now proving popular," he said.
"This university has never been afraid to stand out from the crowd. We are now pioneering low fees."
The move on fees is controversial. Off-the-record comments from vice-chancellors ranged from "brave" to "foolish".
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has made it clear that he will not bail out universities that get it wrong.
Professor Lee will have to do what Sir Thomas More did not - keep his head.