No 10 backs Russell elite's freedom fight

February 25, 2000

The bid today by the Russell Group, Britain's top 20 research universities, for greater financial independence heralds a revolution in British higher education, experts have claimed.

A national debate on the future funding of the sector is expected to follow the group's call for a phased introduction of differential fees.

Economists, who have been asked to help write a paper by May on how a top-up fees system might work, say the debate must consider:

* Flexible tuition fees set by institutions

* United States-style "need-blind" admissions and scholarships for poorer students

* Bigger student loans, with income-contingent repayments

* A reduced role for funding councils

* State funding for teaching in the form of student vouchers

* A consciousness-raising campaign in schools and communities to boost wider participation.

Nottingham University vice-chancellor Sir Colin Campbell, who will present arguments for the radical changes at a meeting of the Russell Group today, told The THES that top-up fees should free universities from "excessive regulation" by the funding councils, which are hampering efforts to compete globally.

He said: "How can we be expected to compete with the Harvards of this world when we are regulated by a funding council? We would do our job better if we were regulated less."

Political commentators say Downing Street and the Treasury are happy about the debate, despite education secretary David Blunkett's opposition to top-up fees. A flexible fees system could fit in well with No 10's efforts to relieve the public purse by encouraging more public/ private partnership arrangements.

But student union leaders plan to fight the proposals and are backing an Early Day Motion that argues top-up fees would create a two-tier system and discourage poor students.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said there was a wide range of views across the sector on top-up fees and the implications should be "thoroughly investigated".

Baroness Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said: "The important thing is to ensure that the debate is rigorous and that the consequences for change are thoroughly investigated."

Vice-chancellors from some middle-ranking and new universities have already signalled their support for Sir Colin's crusade.

David VandeLinde, vice-chancellor at the University of Bath, said Bath would consider introducing top-up fees if Russell Group institutions led the way. "We want to provide the best possible experience for students and it is increasingly difficult to do that through the public purse," he said.

Graham Upton, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said his institution would look at introducing full-cost fees in niche areas.

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:

"Universities have to be free to set their own fees. We should be allowed to charge more or to offer reductions. Any institution that is too greedy will price itself out of the market."

Nick Barr, senior lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics and a member of the group that will develop Sir Colin's proposals, said the first step might be for the government to allow fees to vary within a band that would widen over time.

There should still be some public funding of teaching, he said, but institutions should become less constrained in what they can charge. "It's not the Bupa model, it is more like the National Health Service model, with the capacity and support for private rooms."

Page 3; Leader, page 14; Soapbox, page 16 Noretire_xy The bid today by the Russell Group, Britain's ten top research universities, for greater financial independence, heralds a revolution in British higher education, experts have said.

A national debate on the future funding of the sector is expected to follow the group's call for a phased introduction of differential fees.

Economists, who have been asked to help write a discussion paper by May on how a top-up fees system might work, say the debate must consider:

* Flexible tuition fees set by institutions at market rates

* United States-style "need-blind" admissions and scholarships for poorer students

* Bigger student loans, with income-contingent repayments

* A reduced funding councils role

* State funding for teaching in the form of student vouchers

* A consciousness-raising campaign in schools and communities to boost wider participation.

Nottingham University vice-chancellor Sir Colin Campbell, who presented arguments for the radical changes at a meeting of the Russell Group today, told The THES that top-up fees should free universities from "excessive regulation" by the funding councils, which are hampering efforts to compete globally.

He said: "How can we be expected to compete with the Harvards of this world when we are regulated by a funding council? The state may feel it has some responsibility, but already its investment in higher education is only partial. We would do our job better if we were regulated less."

Political commentators say Downing Street and the Treasury are happy about the debate, despite education secretary David Blunkett's opposition to top-up fees.

A flexible fees system could fit in well with No 10's efforts to relieve the public purse by encouraging more public/private partnership arrangements.

But student union leaders have pledged to fight the proposals, and are backing an Early Day Motion that argues top-up fees would create a two-tier system and discourage poorer students.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said there was a wide range of views across the sector on top-up fees and the implications should be "thoroughly investigated".

Baroness Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said: "The important thing is to ensure that the debate is rigorous and that the consequences for change are thoroughly investigated."

But vice-chancellors from some middle-ranking and new universities have already signalled their support for Sir Colin's crusade.

David VandeLinde, vice-chancellor at the University of Bath, said Bath would consider introducing top-up fees if Russell Group institutions led the way.

"We want to provide the best possible experience for our students and it is increasingly difficult to do that through the public purse," he said.

Graham Upton, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said his institution would look at introducing full-cost fees in niche areas, such as business studies.

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:

"Universities have to be free to set their own fees. We should be allowed to charge more or to offer reductions. Any institution that is too greedy will price itself out of the market."

Ray Cowell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, said: "It is something we would have to consider."

Nick Barr, senior lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics and a member of the group that will develop Sir Colin's proposals, said the first step might be for the government to allow fees to vary within a band that would widen over time.

There should still be some public funding of teaching, but institutions should become less constrained in what they can charge.

"We need a reasonable mix between public and private funding. It's not the Bupa model, it is more like the National Health Service model, with the capacity and support for private rooms," he said.

Page 3; Leader, page 14; Soapbox, page 16.

LEARNING THE AMERICAN WAY

Yale costs $34,170 a year for fees and accommodation, but an annual 13,000 applicants compete for the 1,350 places.

The college operates a need-blind admissions policy - admitting irrespective of the ability to pay and then meets demonstrated needs. Almost half Yale's undergraduates qualify for financial aid, much of which is in the form of federal Pell grants and Stafford loans.

All students are eligible for low-interest loans, up to an aggregate maximum of $23,000.

Perkins loansare available forstudents who need top-up money -up to $4,000 a year.

Federal work-study schemessubsidise campus jobs at nationalminimum wagesfor up to 12 hoursa week.

Loan defaulters face credit blacklisting, garnishment of wages and loss of tax refunds.

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