STUDENTS are alarmed after the government said last week that it would not necessarily penalise universities for charging top-up fees.
The National Union of Students sought immediate clarification after comments by education minister Kim Howells during last Thursday's committee stage of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill.
Outgoing president Douglas Trainer feared that the government had softened its opposition to top-up fees after Dr Howells said that "an (extra) pound of (tuition fees) here and a pound there will not matter".
Dr Howells appeared to leave the door open to top-up fees as long as an institution can provide satisfactory justification. He told MPs that the government would consult with the offending institution before imposing any conditions on grant and allow it to make representations before imposing any financial penalties to claw back top-up fee income.
Dr Howells also made it clear that it would be up to the secretary of state to decide when to invoke the anti-top-up fee provisions in the bill. He said: "The bill requires the secretary of state to act sensibly and reasonably to protect student interests and to make judgements accordingly."
He said that the anti-top-up fee provisions allow but do not require the secretary of state to impose conditions on grants received from the Higher Education Funding Council. He said they also allow action to be taken against institutions charging less than the prescribed amount.
Mr Trainer said: "The NUS sought immediate assurance from the government, and we are satisfied that we received guarantees that top-up fees are in no way acceptable at any level." But Stephen Dorrell, who has confirmed he is to stand down as shadow education secretary, said after the committee stage: "If the secretary of state uses his reserve powers, then the amount of fee must be equal to the prescribed amount but the question is in which circumstances will he use the power? The answer is 'not necessarily to prevent top-up fees'."
Mr Dorrell said that he would ask for further clarification at the bill's report stage due in June. The bill has now completed its committee stage. Following the report stage it will return to the House of Lords for peers to consider the Commons amendments.
Provisions in the bill do not require the secretary of state to take action. And discussions in the committee implied he might do so only after a university breaks ranks and charges top-up fees.
He could then insist that the institution sets a fee equal to the prescribed amount and repays any funding council grant, but in the committee Dr howells said repayments would not be likely to be more than any extra fee income, including interest, earned.
The level of the prescribed fee will be limited to "around" a quarter of the cost of tuition based on an average for all institutions. But universities say that tuition costs vary between institutions.
While no institution has said it will charge top-up fees, many think they are inevitable in the next few years in order to take these differentials into account, particularly if nothing is done to improve higher education funding significantly.
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