QUALITY and student access would suffer if the Government decides to axe state subsidies to Oxbridge colleges, opposition politicians have warned.
Liberal Democrat politicians fear that the Government may stop subsidies totalling more than Pounds 30 million which the state pays to Oxbridge students to help them cover the high costs of college fees. The fees support the colleges' hallmark one-to-one tutoring system.
The Government is to review the subsidies following a recommendation in Sir Ron Dearing's higher education report, which was published last week.
Sir Ron said that the fees should be reviewed to ensure that they represent good value for money with the onus of proof on the universities.
The Liberal Democrats maintain that the fees are very good value because they protect standards at the country's top research institutions. They say that removing the fees could mean poorer teaching and, in an attempt to recoup some of the lost revenue, higher costs for students. Poorer students could be deterred from an Oxbridge education.
Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, accompanied the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Don Foster, and their further and higher education spokesman, Phil Willis, to a meeting last Friday with Peter North, vice chancellor of Oxford University.
Dr Harris said: "Dr North is concerned to put his case for retaining the college fees system and the Liberal Democrat party supports him. If the colleges lose this money they will be forced to reclaim it from the students. This could mean top-up fees or less student support. Either way it flies in the face of Government aims of improving access."
Dr North declined to comment but a spokeswoman for Cambridge University said that Cambridge would fight to retain the fees system. She said: "It all comes down to whether the Government supports excellence in whatever sphere it is found. Rather than taking away this money the Government might want to consider giving it to other institutions in order that they can support their specialities."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said that the Government would be looking at Sir Ron's recommendation regarding college fees. She said that institutions were welcome to submit their views as part of the entire Dearing consultation.
Dr Harris has written to education secretary David Blunkett asking for guarantees on the continuation of college fees.