Peer pressure: review's timing could thrust fees in to the election spotlight

December 10, 2009

Policy options emerging from the independent review of fees will be consulted on before the likely date of next year's general election, Times Higher Education has learnt.

The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, made its first call for evidence on 7 December.

The call will close on 31 January 2010, and the seven-strong review panel will then make a second call for evidence, which will focus on policy options.

In his only press interview, Lord Browne told THE that the second call was likely to be made in early spring 2010.

"We don't know the precise timing, but given that we're starting now and have to finish by the autumn, if you divide the period available in two, it means the second call for evidence will be in March or April," he said.

The timing could thrust tuition fees into the spotlight shortly before the general election, which is likely to be held in May.

Both the Labour and Conservative parties have been accused of using the review to stop tuition fees from becoming an election issue, as the panel will not make its final recommendations until the autumn of 2010.

Lord Browne stressed the panel's independence, but when asked whether tuition fees were a highly political matter, he said: "I can't think of any issue that is not political in life."

One concern is that the fees debate thus far has focused heavily on raising the cap to either £5,000 or £7,000 a year, with other possibilities being overlooked.

Lord Browne insisted, however, that the panel was taking its task of reviewing higher education funding as a whole "quite literally".

"We'll be looking at all sources of funding and how they come together," he said.

The first stage of the review is focusing on the impact of variable fees since their introduction in 2006.

The review panel is seeking evidence of how participation in higher education has changed since the reform, whether there have been identifiable improvements in the quality of teaching, and how concerns about the cost of study have affected students' decision-making.

Universities have also been asked to say how they have used fee income and what cost pressures they envisage arising in the future.

Lord Browne said the panel would be considering the impact of the recession and Britain's economic position on future cohorts of students.

"We will look at the evidence very carefully, but we also need to make judgments. We will be combining those two things and looking at the impact of the economic environment on people's views," the peer said.

Finally, Lord Browne stressed his desire for transparency in the review process.

Written responses to the first call for evidence will be published on-line, and evidence from invited witnesses on themes emerging from the written responses will be gathered at hearings that are open to the public.

"We want to be transparent and productive as well," Lord Browne said. "Transparency in my view shouldn't just be gratuitous: it needs to be purposeful."

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