Top-ups haven't spared public purse, Browne review finds

More money for institutions comes with a cost to taxpayers, panel says. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 18, 2010

Top-up fees have failed to make the higher education system less reliant on public funding, according to the panel examining the future of university financing.

In a document published this week, the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance sets out its initial findings and calls for views on how to fund university teaching in the future.

The paper cites evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that suggests that although top-up fees have raised additional income for universities, at a national level they have failed to generate extra income from private sources, with every pound of extra fee income matched by about a pound in additional costs to taxpayers.

It adds that the current system has done "nothing to alleviate the rationing of higher education places due to public finance constraints".

The document summarises evidence from more than 80 submissions presented to the review so far.

It says there is clear agreement that the introduction of top-up fees has not harmed full-time participation, but there is consensus that the finance system for part-time students is inadequate, and some concern that a minority of students are debt averse.

While student expectations have risen since top-up fees were brought in, there is disagreement on whether the student experience has improved.

The review team, led by Lord Browne of Madingley, is now asking for proposals on the best mechanism "to drive up quality, efficiency and innovation in higher education, and what metrics should be used to assess quality improvements".

It will examine how those who benefit from higher education can make "a significant contribution" towards the cost.

The next phase of the review will also look at how to achieve the best balance between public investment in full- and part-time provision.

The review reports "clear evidence that the benefits of student loans above other forms of debt still need to be better communicated and understood", and adds that awareness of bursaries is poor among applicants.

There has been progress on widening participation in the past five years, it says, but this has been less evident at the most selective universities.

Potential students need better information and guidance, including on the teaching experience on different courses and likely employment outcomes.

The panel is now seeking proposals for reform.

It will examine the future of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the student finance system, the cap on student numbers, the cap on tuition fees and investment in different types of provision.

Ways to increase employers' engagement will also be considered, as well as the regulation and governance of universities.

On the issue of governance, the document asks: "How do we scrutinise and regulate higher education institutions to ensure they are delivering on quality and participation?"

The deadline for responses is 14 May. They can be submitted at

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