The most influential new Labour think-tank has backed university top-up fees, signalling possible change in future government higher education funding policy.
The Institute for Public Policy Research, which is influential in developing ideas for the government, believes that allowing universities to charge any tuition fee they think their student markets will bear is an equitable and practical long-term solution to higher education funding.
In an article on page 4 of today's THES, the IPPR's education research fellow, Wendy Piatt, challenges the three main political parties to reconsider top-up or, more accurately, differential fees.
Dr Piatt argues: "Differential fees are the fairest and most feasible method of funding and should remain central to the long-term vision for higher education."
The Labour Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have each ruled out differential fees. Education secretary David Blunkett has stated that there will be no top-up fees in the next parliament if Labour is re-elected.
Dr Piatt says Mr Blunkett's veto is understandable given that differential fees are politically unpalatable now. But she argues that differential fees are "misunderstood" and "misrepresented".
With the IPPR's political weight behind differential fees, Mr Blunkett's attempts to block them may not last longer than a second Labour government - if that.
Another option would be for the government to increase the prescribed flat-rate fee above the current £1,050.
There is already support in the government for allowing universities, as private institutions, to raise more income from those who will gain long-term financial benefits from a degree. Mr Blunkett accepts the personal-benefit argument. Grants were scrapped and loans introduced on this basis.
In a newspaper interview this week, Mr Blunkett hinted at support for top-up fees in the Downing Street policy unit. He said it took long discussions with Downing Street to secure the commitment to rule out differential fees for the next parliament.
But with Mr Blunkett almost certain to become home secretary in a second Labour government, the top-up fee debate may reopen. There is no guarantee that a successor will share his antipathy towards differential fees, particularly if an economic downturn increases funding pressures.
Stephen Byers, the current secretary for trade and industry, is tipped to replace Mr Blunkett. Sources say Mr Byers lacks Mr Blunkett's gut-level aversion to top-up fees.
A number of vice-chancellors publicly, and more often privately, back differential fees, which are one of four main funding options being considered by Universities UK.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "UUK's general election charter makes clear that the next government needs to invest substantially in our universitiesI and we have offered a number of possible sources from which such investment could be drawn. We look forward to early discussions with the next government."
Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University and champion of a Russell Group report that resurrected the top-up fees debate last year, said: "Either the government is prepared to admit that it wants a second-rate higher education system or it increases the grant or allows variable market fees."
- Lecturers' militancy rises
Phil Baty and Tony Tysome
Lecturers' leaders will threaten the new government with a new militancy.
Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney will tell annual conference delegates tomorrow that he is "angry and disappointed" with Labour's first term and that he expects much more from the next.
"There has been a change of tone, but the overall effect is of continuing neglect with the core services rotting," he will say.
Mr Mackney will warn of rising opposition to Labour from the left.
Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks condemned Natfhe's one-day strike in further education colleges this week. "I regret that Natfhe has decided to take this action at a time when colleges are receiving record funding, and there is a new pay structure that will mean more money for most lecturers."
Election 2001 index page