An Ivy League of internationally-prestigious British universities offering high class but expensive degree courses could be established if plans drawn up by the Adam Smith Institute to reorganise university funding win the backing of the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education.
The institute, a right-wing think tank headed by Madsen Pirie, is preparing a report Q to be submitted next month Q which will recommend a system of student vouchers for university tuition fees. Currently, tuition fees are paid to the universities by local authorities with additional subsidies from the funding councils, but under the institute's scheme, the funding councils would be abolished and students themselves would receive an individual voucher for the course.
Each type of course would attract a different type of voucher. A science undergraduate would receive more than a humanities undergraduate, and according to one estimate, a medical student would receive twice as much as an English student. But across the university sector, each type of course would attract the same voucher.
Dr Pirie acknowledged that some universities might charge supplements to cover the cost of attracting the best academics and maintaining the best-stocked libraries. But he said this emerging Ivy League would not become the preserve of a rich minority because the quest of the best universities for the brightest students would lead them to offer a package of scholarships and bursaries.
The student voucher system would be complemented by an extended loans system to pay for student maintenance costs. Dr Pirie favours an improved version of the current system rather than the alternative backed by Labour this week Q repayment through tax.
The institute calculates that an upgraded loans system, together with the abolition of the funding quangos, would produce savings which could be used to remove the ceiling on student numbers.
Dr Pirie said half the age group could be educated to degree level and that the savings would allow the Government to offer vouchers to students who do not qualify for higher education but who secure places on post-18 training courses.
The Department for Education and Employment is thought to be "sympathetic" to the institute's proposals, and Dr Pirie thought that the Labour party would be attracted by the "unsnobbish" nature of the scheme.