Levy hangs in balance

February 2, 1996

A THES survey of vice chancellors suggests voting will be close as they decide today whether to endorse plans for a levy on new undergraduates in 1997. Plans to withdraw from outside activities, including quality assessment, should go through. But a hard core of opponents will not implement the proposal.

A poll of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals found 32 in favour of the levy and 25 against. Sixty-six of the 104 members have been polled over the past ten days - "don't knows" have been excluded from the analysis.

Support for the executive's position is strongest on withdrawing from outside activities - with 38 in favour and 24 against. But 18 of the opponents said they would not implement a majority decision to withdraw from quality assessment. Graeme Davies, vice chancellor of Glasgow University and former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "I will oppose this. It would be utterly self-destructive."

CVCP votes cannot bind indivi-dual institutions. Major financial policy decisions have to be taken by university councils. Proposals for a campaign to influence decision-makers will win widespread support, although several vice chancellors fear that the levy proposals will not help. "The lesson from the schools is that you have to bring everyone together - governors, staff and students. If we alienate the students, we are in trouble from the start," said one vice chancellor.

The poll also shows why, after extensive soundings, the executive rejected other options. Top-up fees were rejected by 49 to 12, and restricting student numbers went down by 48 to 17 - with several of the minority only favouring number cuts if there were no corresponding cash cuts.

The CVCP, which usually operates on consensus rather than regular voting, will be concerned to present a united front. The decision to delay the levy until October 1997 and withdrawal from outside activities until January 1997 is meant to pressure the Government in the run-up to the next general election.

A final decision on whether to implement the threatened measures would be taken in December 1996. They will be withdrawn if the Government accepts two demands: that the 1996 Budget imposes no further recurrent cuts beyond an annual efficiency gain of at most 1 per cent, includes "some significant reversal" of the massive capital cuts in the 1995 budget and withdraws further planned capital cuts; and that the Government must have signalled by then the intention to introduce, by 1999, an income-contingent loans scheme, covering fees and maintenance for full and part-timers.

If implemented, the levy (students receiving a full grant would be exempted) would hit an estimated 140,000 full-time home undergraduates starting courses in 1997. Its level would depend on the impact of the 1996 Budget on universities. At current income levels, it would come to around Pounds 300 per head - bringing in Pounds 40 to Pounds 50 million.

Today's meeting is widely seen as a test of the CVCP's credibility. The poll uncovered considerable scepticism. One vice chancellor, asked what he expected the meeting to do, said "procrastinate". Clive Booth, vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and a former CVCP vice chair, said: "We really have to bite the bullet and decide whether or not we can be a force."

CVCP leaders meet Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, next week.

Prime Minister John Major sidestepped a question on institutional autonomy, saying that universities has no cause for complaint. Bryan Davies, shadow minister for further and higher education, said: "Labour does not believe such fees are a sustainable or equitable answer but we recognise that the blame lies squarely with the Government." Don Foster, Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "The proposal, born of frustration, is understandable, but not the best way forward."

The two main lecturers' unions also signalled opposition while Jim Murphy, president of the National Union of Students, said: "It is unfair of vice chancellors to put the onus for this shortfall on students. "

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