Top-ups are non-negotiable

September 12, 2003

Academics will sacrifice the chance of a decent pay rise if they fail to back the government over top-up fees, higher education minister Alan Johnson said this week.

In his first major interview, Mr Johnson told The THES that the country faced a stark choice between raising the money necessary for expansion and pay through graduate top-up fees, or cutting investment in higher education and student places.

Working-class students would be denied the opportunity of higher education without the income from fees, he said.

Mr Johnson, who also delivered his maiden speech to vice-chancellors at the Universities UK conference in Warwick this week, said the government was in no mood for concessions over its central policy of charging fees of up to £3,000 a year in 2006 - set out in January's white paper.

He said that failure to raise extra cash for higher education from fees would be negligent in the face of chancellor Gordon Brown's clear message that public spending could not be allowed to rise at the rate it has done.

Mr Johnson said: "I think it would be arrogant of us if we weren't listening to people's concerns. But where that concern is a dogmatic opposition to graduates making any contribution, it is difficult to think what we can do there.

"This is the way forward for higher education. I do not think that a government that ducked this issue would be looking after this country's economic interests."

By 2005-06, taxpayers would be paying £400 a year on average for higher education, he said. He added that if the country was agreed that more university places and greater investment in higher education were necessary, then failing to introduce top-up fees in 2006 could cost more.

But tax rises are not an option.

The straight-talking former union boss also appealed to higher education staff to support top-ups. His call came as members of the two largest lecturing unions, the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, supported a successful motion rejecting top-up fees at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton.

Mr Johnson asked: "Where is the extra money going to come from to resolve these issues of terms and conditions? That's why I think for those working in the sector to be adamantly opposed to our proposals is rather strange."

There was little in the way of conciliation ahead of November's top-up fees bill, which some think could lead to Tony Blair's first Commons defeat.

More than 130 Labour MPs have signed an early-day motion opposing top-up fees, The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also oppose the fees.

But speaking at the UUK conference, Mr Johnson said that the government would be looking at how to help the poorest students who, if they had to pay the full £3,000 charge, faced a shortfall of £875 once the fee remission and maintenance grant were taken into account.

He indicated that more students could face the full fee than the government had previously estimated. But the government would take action to prevent cartels of universities charging the full £3,000.

However, Mr Johnson told vice-chancellors: "Many of you may choose to charge the highest fee and so long as an access agreement is in place, I will be perfectly content."

Mr Johnson also ruled out a flat-rate fee in place of the variable charging structure proposed by the government. The conference was due to debate a motion from Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University, pushing for a flat-rate fee and an increased maintenance grant for students who are exempt from the basic £1,125 fee.

The minister said: "The more I understand the different cost structures among universities, the huge diversity in courses and the difference in the expected rate of return, the more I reject the argument for what Nicholas Barr describes as the 'communism' of the fixed-rate principle."

Mr Johnson did, however, soften the government line on research concentration. He said: "This is a white paper issue. We have time to develop an analysis of the issues."

Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said that further concentration of research would be a "national folly". "We are concerned that the concentration of research will stunt development of promising research teams and young researchers and damage regional economies outside London and the Southeast," he said.

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