Top-up fees will require a political balancing act

September 22, 2000

From the point of view of the student, the arrival of fees and the abolition of grants mean the same thing - less money and more debt. To university managers, they are different creatures. Universities get the fees but see no benefit from the ending of grants. So it is no surprise that they are willing to countenance a deal (page 1) that would allow them to up the fees they charge while students get back their grants. But if differential fees are on their way, universities will have to think hard about their reasons for charging them and how they go about it. This week's Liberal Democrat conference promised to abolish them, and there will be grassroots scepticism when Labour meets next week. Nor are the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales likely converts to the idea.

Perhaps the most invidious aspect of differential fees is that they are likely to be set on a market-driven basis. In-demand subjects will cost more than less sought-after ones, without regard for the cost of providing them. Medicine and veterinary subjects, which lead to well-paid jobs, are expensive to teach. But business and media studies, which are cheaper to deliver but enticing to students, also lead to employment and are likely to be among the first candidates for top-ups. People have been spending five-figure sums for years to get an MBA.

Baroness Warwick's admission this week that abolishing grants has made university less feasible for poor students is welcome. It implies that any introduction of top-up fees will be a political balancing act. At the moment, poorer students do not pay the Pounds 1,050 a year fee. But if universities are setting a fee at some higher rate, will governments want to compensate them for admitting students who cannot pay? If not, they risk being accused of reserving the best careers for the children of the already prosperous. And they would damage initiatives like the campaign to broaden the social mix of doctors.

Decisions on the future of fees need to be taken with care and with the involvement of everyone concerned, including students and employers, who might have strong views on the likely effects on their future workforce. A backstairs deal between vice-chancellors and ministers is one way of doing business that should be ruled out.

14 opinionThe Times HigherJseptember 22J2000 Admiral House 66-68JEast SmithfieldJLondon E1W 1BX Fax 020 7782 3300JTel 020 7782 3000JEmail Website 'Government pressure to adopt admissions policies on the basis of postcodes will create new injustices'

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