Sykes calls for Labour fee rethink

August 15, 1997

A DETAILED, independent financial analysis of the Government's proposals for student funding is urgently needed, according to Sir Richard Sykes, chairman and chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome.

Sir Richard, a member of the Dearing committee and chairman of the inquiry's research working group, is the second member of the main committee to call for such a costing.

Last week, Diana Laurillard, Open University pro vice chancellor, said the fees proposals may not have been properly worked out.

Sir Richard said the Government's proposals must be modelled on the same principles that resulted in Dearing's recommendation on funding: keeping maintenance grants and making all students pay a flat, annual Pounds 1,000 tuition fee that could be financed through loans and repaid on an income-contingent basis.

"One of the key principles for us was to make higher education more widely available, to think of those who could not afford the costs associated with higher education," Sir Richard said.

The Government has decided to replace maintenance grants with loans, and introduce means-testing for tuition fees. The Government argues this will help ensure students from poor families are not deterred from going to universities, and generate an extra Pounds 1.7 billion for the sector, compared with the Pounds 1 billion projected for Dearing's plan.

But Sir Richard said: "Until we get a financial analysis, I do not know whether the projection of Pounds 1.7 billion is fact or fiction." He said the Government's funding model is "regressive" and will hit poorest students hardest: "The model was looked at and it was rejected because the poor would be substantially worse off."

However, if the Government proves its model can raise Pounds 1.7 billion, it might find support, he said.

On the research front, one of Dearing's key recommendations was a Pounds 500 million loan scheme to help top research departments purchase laboratory equipment.

Funding for the scheme, it is envisaged, would come from Government and major research funders, including industry, funding councils and research councils.

Industry, however, has been less than enthusiastic about pumping money into the initiative, arguing that the funding of all aspects of teaching and basic research is the Government's responsibility.

Sir Richard, wearing his Glaxo Wellcome hat, said: "If Cambridge's chemistry department needed refurbishing and they asked us to help we would probably do so, but we would ask for a special association with them. We would not put money into an infrastructure fund that allocated money more generally."

The same view is held widely in industry and has been echoed by the Chemical Industries Association, several of whose members were approached by Dearing about the scheme.

One possible route to getting industrial involvement is to allow firms to continue funding infrastructure on a case-by-case basis but as part of the loan scheme.

Sir Richard also said the loan scheme might operate for certain bids on a matching funds basis, with industry paying half the costs. "I think there is going to be a lot of flexibility in the scheme. I am not saying industry will notcontribute."

The charities and some in industry have complained about the lack of auditing of money secured by departments for research. Dearing, while calling on all research funders to pay the full costs of projects, says there must be greater transparency in how money is used in future. "It will require much more discipline," Sir Richard said.

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