Students baffled by 'failed' fee regime

February 25, 2005

Ministers' plans to create a market in higher education have already "failed", with students, parents and teachers in a state of confusion about the new tuition fee and bursary regime, MPs were told this week.

In a combative session of the Education and Skills Select Committee on Wednesday, MPs took evidence from Middlesex, Huddersfield and Oxford universities and the Open University about the introduction of variable fees and bursaries in 2006.

The MPs tried repeatedly to persuade John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, to reveal how much his university might charge students if there were no Pounds 3,000 fee cap. He declined to name a figure but said Oxford faced a funding shortfall of £6,000 per student each year.

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex and chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities (CMU), told the committee that ministers had failed to create a market in tuition fees, as all but one institution would charge Pounds 3,000. He said the rise in university income would be "inadequate" and that vice-chancellors were under pressure to "siphon" resources away from improving staff pay or facilities into bigger bursaries for students.

There was confusion among school pupils, parents and teachers about the changes, he said, and a major public information campaign was needed.

He added that the higher education funding system was "highly divisive and discriminatory" and called for old and new universities to be placed on a level field.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee and Labour MP for Huddersfield, asked Professor Driscoll if "class envy" had coloured his view. Professor Driscoll replied that Oxbridge had "five and a half times the turnover" of a typical CMU institution and could offer students "comparative luxury".

"If that smacks of envy, I plead guilty," he added.

While generally more upbeat about the regime, John Tarrant, vice-chancellor of Huddersfield, said the implications for further education colleges had not been fully considered last year when MPs debated the Bill that allowed the introduction of top-up fees.

The committee was also warned that funding changes benefiting poor full-time students would not apply to their part-time counterparts. David Vincent, pro-vice-chancellor of the Open University, said ministers had given "an undertaking" to offer more support for part-time study when the Higher Education Bill was being considered by the House of Lords, but they had yet to deliver.

He said: "From 2006, full-time higher education will be free at the point of delivery, like the National Health Service. But this will not be true for part-time students, and it is the single biggest difference that could be made for them."

The committee also heard from Sir Alan Wilson, the Government's director-general of higher education, who said the changes had been adequately publicised.

Valerie Davey, Labour MP for Bristol West, asked if the Government had reached agreement with other European Union states about recovering fees from EU students. Sir Alan said the issue was under negotiation.

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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