Rich to subsidise access

October 31, 1997

A fees rise to pay for widening access in further and higher education is being considered by the government's lifelong learning advisers.

Key members of the National Advisory Group for the forthcoming lifelong learning white paper are arguing for the level of fees paid by wealthy students to be increased above 25 per cent of average course costs.

The move, designed to raise cash to help universities and colleges widen participation, would mean higher education student contributions rising above the proposed Pounds 1,000 a year, and millions of FE students paying more than their current fees of Pounds 600 a year.

Some members of the group say this "Robin Hood" approach is the best way to redistribute funds away from the privileged towards schemes to help those left outside the post-16 education system.

They say a rebalancing of funding is vital to build a sector truly supporting lifelong learning. But it must be done carefully to avoid dismantling the present system so that new recruits can make progress.

Only the wealthiest students would be required to pay the higher fees, with the poorest paying nothing, as under the government's proposals. Increased fees could affect up to three million students in further education who do not qualify for exemption.

John Field, professor of continuing education at Ulster University and a member of the group, said: "It is government policy to create a learning society for the many, not the few - the idea would not be inconsistent with that. The idea would sound conservative if you were coming from California, because they already fund access by charging steep fees there."

But the National Union of Students, which has been campaigning against the introduction of fees in higher education, said the idea was "one of the things we fear most".

An NUS spokeswoman said: "The government does not realise how much pressure it will be under to allow the 25 per cent, Pounds 1,000 tuition fee to be raised. There needs to be a ceiling. The price could go through the roof if they try to recoup funds for FE."

Advisory group chairman Bob Fryer is expected to hand in the group's report next week and will meet David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, in mid-November to finalise plans.

The white paper is expected to be published in late November or early December.

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