The position of this autumn's university applicants is confused by the legal and political situation on fees
BRITAIN's top universities may consider top-up fees if the government restricts their financial freedom while failing to pump more money into the system, it emerged this week.
A letter to education secretary David Blunkett, leaked to The THES, appears to be a thinly veiled threat to the government from the influential Russell Group of research-led universities. It clearly shows that the group sees top-up fees as a possible solution to the funding problems that are likely if the government's inter-departmental comprehensive spending review fails to allocate more cash to higher education.
Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, wrote to Mr Blunkett on behalf of the 17-strong Russell Group before Christmas. Sir Colin said that the new Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which is designed to prevent top-up or differentiated fees, could damage "our competitiveness and thus the standing of UK higher education around the world".
Sir Colin continued: "Provided that differentiated fees are accompanied by an adequate system of scholarships and bursaries for the less well off, we cannot envisage circumstances in which a secretary of state would need to exercise reserve powers to control such fees.
"Clearly, if we are able to maintain the quality of provision which attracts students and research support to us from around the globe within the government's new arrangements, then we would wish to do so.
"However, the government has not yet given any commitment that the full additional revenue from fees will accrue to higher education nor any indication of public funding for higher education beyond 1998-99 to ensure the major shortfalls in resourcing identified by Dearing will be made good from public funds."
This week a spokesman for the Russell Group clarified the position. He said: "None of the Russell Group members is considering top-up fees per se. We are not interested in doing this at the moment but if the comprehensive spending review does not come up with the goods then all universities will be trying to maintain what they have.
"My private view is that a number of universities would, if the spending review fails to come up with more money, look very hard at any proper and legitimate means of deriving income and that would have to include a review of fee arrangements."
The Russell Group analysis is backed by experts from the new university sector. Janusz Karczewski-Slowikowski, academic registrar at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Association of Heads of University Administration, believes differentiated fee levels are likely.
He said: "It would not surprise me if a breakaway group of universities began charging differentiated fees because they can claim particular standards, expertise or excellence for which applicants will wish to pay a higher price. We then move to an ivy league system where 'customers' demand 'better' degrees which they can offer to potential employers."