Lobby groups line up to fight

January 23, 2004

As the higher education bill reaches its second reading on Tuesday, THES reporters weigh up the opposition and analyse the last-minute manoeuvring

Universities are lining up to fight for changes to the government's higher education proposals should the bill pass its second reading, writes Claire Sanders.

While Universities UK, the umbrella group representing all universities, continues to focus its efforts on getting the bill through the second reading, smaller subgroupings of universities are calling for amendments.

After a meeting in York last week, the Coalition of Modern Universities sent a briefing to all MPs calling for six "improvements" to the government proposals. CMU members are still strongly opposed to the bursary proposals and want universities to be able to use their access funds to supplement bursaries rather than be forced to divert £300 of fee income.

"The current proposals are perverse and iniquitous and involve a subsidy by the mainstream universities that have the largest numbers of poor students to the elite universities with the smallest number of poor students," the briefing says.

The CMU also wants the unit of funding per student safeguarded in all universities.

"This can be achieved by changing the funding council methodology. For example, an increased widening participation premium and a premium for teaching-intensive universities could help to create an acceptable floor to the unit of funding, limiting the range of variability of the average fee level across universities and reducing the risk of a two-tier system developing," it says.

The CMU is also calling for the introduction of a government-endorsed index of value added in higher education.

"Schools and colleges now have value-added measures, and it is about time they were applied to universities," said Michael Driscoll, chair of the CMU.

The briefing calls for a strengthening of fee and grant support for part-time students, the introduction of a single point of assessment for student financial support and the transfer of fee remission into an increased upfront maintenance grant.

"A clear majority of CMU members wish to see the HE bill pass its second reading," it says. "This support is despite the continued opposition of most CMU members to variability in fees."

Michael Sterling, chair of the Russell Group of research-led universities, said politicians of all parties had agreed that higher education was underfunded.

"If the bill gets through, they must not be allowed to bury their heads in the sand," he said. "Tony Blair has acknowledged that universities are underfunded by about £10 billion. Fees will only bring in just over a billion of this.

"We will still have recurrent underfunding of about £3,800 per student. If the maintenance backlog is taken into account, then we need a one-off payment per student of between £4,000 and £5,000. This has to come from general taxation."

Alasdair Smith, chair of the 1994 Group, said: "We are broadly content with the package of proposals but will be pushing for the Office for Fair Access to have a very light touch - although we recognise the political difficulties of this."

All groups of universities warned that they would face serious funding difficulties if the bill failed.

Meanwhile, a number of vice-chancellors who had been strongly opposed to the government plan gave it qualified support this week.

One of the most outspoken, Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said: "I have to concede that the government has been in 'listening mode' and has taken on board many of the concerns that critics of the bill expressed.

"I applaud the concessions that Charles Clarke has made in order to ensure extra support for students from poorer backgrounds."

He said that the government was right to abolish upfront tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants for poor students.

"Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson (the higher education minister) are men of integrity, and I believe their assurances that the £3,000 maximum fee will be capped for the duration of the next Parliament, should Labour be re-elected," he added.

Graham Henderson, vice-chancellor of Teesside University, said: "I welcome the government's concessions, particularly the bigger package of financial support for poor students, but remain opposed, in principle, to tuition fees."

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