Poll support for fees will cheer ministers

November 8, 2002

THES survey shows unexpected reactions to charging students more

Results of The THES poll of vice-chancellors' attitudes to top-up fees will encourage those in the government who want universities to raise more of their income from students.

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge has repeatedly justified higher fees on the grounds that graduates will earn £400,000 more, on average, over their working lives, than non-graduates.

The survey shows that vice-chancellors at new universities are more likely to oppose higher fees. This is because they educate more people from low-income backgrounds, who are more likely to be deterred by higher charges.

There are exceptions. Gillian Slater, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, favours a flat-rate fee of about £2,200, as does Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University.

Peter Knight of the University of Central England wants the complete deregulation of fees. He says that universities should have the flexibility to charge more than the current £1,100 a year.

Many new university heads such as Mike Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, are resigned to higher fees. He said: "I am in favour if this is the only way that universities can get extra moneyI However, raising fees will work against increasing and widening participation. You don't have to be a Nobel prizewinner in economics to work this out - the higher the price, the lower the demand."

Financial and political realities are mentioned by a number of vice-chancellors who back fees. Sir Colin Lucas, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, calls for a national debate on university funding. He said:

"Universities are not asking for handouts. However, the (financial) pressures are now unmanageable as the sector moves towards the government's 50 per cent participation target."

Most vice-chancellors of Russell Group universities are in favour of higher fees. But there is a range of views, from the opposition of Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University, and Tim O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University, to the full support of Sir Richard Sykes at Imperial College, London.

Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, says that universities should be allowed to set their own fee levels. "It is extremely unlikely that the (funding) shortfall will be made up by additional government funding."

Some, however, such as Arthur Lucas, principal of King's College London, are reluctant supporters. Professor Lucas said: "I would much prefer that proposals for proper government support of the costs of tuition came in the postponed strategy document. If, however, there is no other option available, the possibility of deregulated fees would be explored in the context of a system that ensured that admissions decisions were not made on the ability to pay."

The Labour Party manifesto prevents top-up fees being introduced in the current parliament. Many universities are waiting for the strategy document before starting work on fees.

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