Troubled response

December 5, 1997

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill gives education secretary David Blunkett - and his successors - sweeping new powers. THES reporters spell out these powers and the wide-ranging reaction to them.


NEW powers for the secretary of state brought in by the Teaching and Higher Education Bill are "sweeping and draconian", Conservative Party education spokesman, Stephen Dorrell, said this week.

"We will be tabling amendments to probe what the government intends to use the power for, and we will seek to confine it," he said.

Mr Dorrell said he was concerned that the bill gives "carte blanche for the secretary of state, or a future secretary of state, to design the higher education funding system through regulations".

But, he said, he will also oppose the bill because he disagrees with the policy principles. "It is simply perverse that the government's programme will prohibit access to higher education from individuals from lower income backgrounds. We shall oppose the abolition of the maintenance grant," he said.

Provision to stop institutions charging top-up fees, above the maximum Pounds 1,000 a year, he said, was flawed. "Sir Ron Dearing recommended that in some cases, differential fees cannot be ruled out. This is to be supported, and the government shouldn't run with these reserve powers."


THE Liberal Democrats will reject the bill on the basis that they "fundamentally oppose" tuition fees, but they are also unhappy about the way it has been drafted.

Don Foster, their education spokesman, said that the bill left the door open for future government's to "zonk-up tuition fees willy nilly".

The bill ensures that any proposed future increase in tuition fees above the level of inflation must be put before both houses of Parliament. "But it does not specify which inflation index must be used," warned Mr Foster. "They could choose an inflation index where the rate has doubled, and will not have to put it before Parliament." Mr Foster acknowledged that there was an issue of autonomy, but said the secretary of state's reserve powers to penalise institutions who charge top-up fees were justifiable.

"Universities are already constrained by limits to funding, and they always will be as they are state run and reliant on state funding. It is a matter of details, not principles."

Phil Willis, party spokesman on higher and further education, said that the new reserve powers could be dodged by the back door.

Mr Willis has tabled a question to the secretary of state asking him to define "top up fees in the context of university charges, and if the secretary of state will list the areas which are within the remit of top up fees". He added: "If universities are to receive little extra income from the tuition fee element and cannot charge for any other university service then some universities will face financial collapse. Universities starved of resources for the past decade now realise that the pot of gold promised from the imposition of tuition fees is merely 'fools gold'."

Lord Tope, Liberal Democrat education spokesman in the Lords, said he would be pushing for a series of amendments when the bill had its second reading next week. Among these would be a request for clarification on what was meant by top up fees.

The party remained opposed to tuition fees, but he added: "We will certainly be seeking to build a coalition. If there are to be fees, they should benefit the universities."


LABOUR backbenchers are more concerned about access for students than the threat in the bill to institutional autonomy.

Margaret Hodge, chair of the select committee for education and employment, said: "We have always said that we oppose top up fees. The intent is to prevent a two-tier system - no more, no less. I can't think of a political party that would want to get involved in detailed running of institutions. I think that whoever is complaining just doesn't like the idea of us preventing top-up fees."

Bill Rammell, former manager of the University of London Union, and one of the most vigorous opponents of top-up fees, said: "I can't imagine that any university will now think of introducing them."

He thought it was equally unlikely that the House of Lords, facing reform, would wish to block the government on the issue.

Gordon Marsden, secretary of the Labour backbench education committee, said the move against top-up fees was "entirely reasonable in terms of creating a level playing field in higher education".

He added that it was important there should be consultation with universities who feel the secretary of state's reserve powers would cramp their expansion or consolidation plans, and that Oxbridge's special position should be recognised: "But is not an excuse for them, or any other university, to hold the government to ransom."

Ian Gibson, former pro vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, said: "Universities have to have a degree of autonomy, but they are part of a national system. Top-up fees would have a diabolical effect, splitting the system and setting university against university."


DIANA Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP, said the reserve power to stop top-up fees undermined university autonomy and that she would be pressing hard for it to be taken out of the bill. Ms Warwick said there should not be any need for the power if the government kept its side of the bargain by reducing the cuts in public funding and reinvesting the money raised by tuition fees back in to the sector. "We will be putting on pressure to ensure that the government delivers on these two counts," she said.


MOST of the Russell group universities are backing the CVCP line that the reserve powers on top-up fees should be removed from the bill.

Durham said it regretted the government's "unnecessary" move. "We would hope the government would be able to act by persuasion using the existing levers," said Michael Prestwich, pro vice chancellor.

Sir Colin Campbell, vice chancellor of Nottingham University, called the bill "utterly bizarre and over-prescriptive".

"If the bill goes ahead the secretary of state could interfere with every university and any sorts of fees without parliamentary scrutiny. It is a huge disappointment. I have not heard anything so obtuse in 20 years. It's going to be a lawyer's paradise."

Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University, said it was crucial to ensure that the legislation focused specifically on the new contribution to tuition fees.

"What worries me is that unless legislation is drafted very carefully, it could catch a lot of existing programmes for which we charge fees at rates higher than Pounds 1,000. For example, we have a small number of self-funded students undertaking veterinary education who pay full cost fees. There are charges for management programmes, not all of which are postgraduate, which reflect the market."


NEW universities were less concerned about autonomy.

At Teesside a spokesman said the university was fundamentally opposed to top-up fees and therefore supported the secretary of state's new powers.

Ray Cowell, vice chancellor at Nottingham Trent said he understood the government's position. "David Blunkett had to give himself this power given that firm advice was given in June that universities should not charge top-up fees. The government either had to back down or put that recommendation on the statute book."


MILES Hedges, chairman, British Universities Finance Directors Group, said: "For the secretary of state, saying that he or she does not like us charging for one thing or the other will make financial planning virtually impossible to implement. I don't know of any finance director who is happy about this, because of its impact on financial planning and autonomy."


NEW powers in the bill to penalise institutions if they charge top-up fees do not go far enough, the National Union of Students said.

The NUS wants tougher measures, to ensure no future government could ever allow universities to charge top-up fees.

NUS president Douglas Trainer said: "The threat of top-up fees outweighs the issue of institutional autonomy." The NUS said the plans left a "dangerous loophole" which could still allow universities to charge top-up fees.

The union said that while the new powers allow the secretary of state for education and employment to cut state cash to universities which charge top-up fees, there is no legal obligation for the education secretary to use the powers.

The NUS is also concerned that the bill allows the Pounds 1,000 means-tested student tuition fee to be increased without discussion by an independent review body. "Sir Ron Dearing said there should be independent review before fees are raised," said Mr Trainer. "Why won't the government make provision for this? With no real ban on top-up fees, and no review on state fees, we could soon see the cost of our college courses rise through the roof. This is a terrible deterrent to many would-be students."

The NUS also said that the government had set itself "lower hurdles" to jump if it wanted to increase the rate of interest on student loans. The NUS also opposes the principle of tuition fees.


A SPOKESWOMAN for Cambridge University said: "We are very much against charging top-up fees, because we believe this will add an additional burden to students. However, we strongly believe that universities as private institutions, whose income derives from a variety of sources, should be able to charge top-up fees if they need to do so. Cambridge along with other universities is exploring its legal position on fees."

A spokesman for Oxford University said: "We have been looking forward to working in partnership with government in promoting access and resolving the issues raised around college fees. Our first reading of the bill indicates a spirit of dirigisme rather than partnership. We would stand opposed to moves to constrain university freedoms and powers.


ROBERT Pearce, pro vice chancellor Buckingham University, Britain's only private university, said the government's tightening of controls would have a negative impact on higher education generally but he was unclear what the implications were for Buckingham which relies on student fees.

"We don't think this prohibition applies to us although we are not entirely sure - if it is a blanket prohibition on charging fees that would put us out of business," professor Pearce said.


DAVID Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The AUT shares the concern of the CVCP that autonomy could be threatened by the bill's powers which appear to go much wider than preventing top-up fees. On the other hand, the association is opposed to top-up fees and would resist any institution which tried to introduce them."

A spokeswoman for Natfhe, said: "It is very important that the government takes steps to outlaw top-up fees but if there is some hidden agenda then that gives us cause for concern. The issue is complicated because the autonomy argument has a different force for old universities. The autonomy of new universities is questionable in the first place."


LORD Jenkins of Hillhead, chancellor of Oxford University, raised the spectre of the bill being declared hybrid, laying it open to serious disruption. "Oxford and Cambridge colleges have always charged fees, although it so happens that they are paid by the government. Removing that historic right raises a great number of complications, most notably making the bill hybrid," he said. Hybrid bills affect a specific private interest. Those interests have the right to petition against the legislation. "It has to go select committees of both houses. It can take a very long time and the bill can be blocked", he said.

The bill was "quite a quagmire" with other possibilities including challenges in the European Court of Human Rights. But he added that he still had to consider the bill in detail: "We are still not at the stage of deciding what action should be taken".

Lord Beloff said: "Clauses 16 to 18 are an outrage in the sense that they depart from the British tradition that universities are autonomous institutions enjoying royal charters. The idea that they can be limited in the way in which they set about improving their financial position is the end of the British university system."


THE bill appears to contain powers which would outlaw the sort of course charges upon which further education colleges often depend for their survival, it has been claimed.

John Brennan, director of further education development for the Association of Colleges, said that clause 18 of the bill contains provisions to require governing bodies to "secure that no fees are payable to the institution by any specified class of persons in respect of any specified matters in connection with their attending courses of any specified description".

Mr Brennan said: "Lots of colleges levy charges which could become illegal under this bill. It could present colleges with great difficulties because they use fees as a way of topping up resources under the present funding squeeze."

The AoC has in mind charges for field trips, certain equipment and other small but significant fees associated with courses. The association is otherwise relatively happy with clause 18 which it says merely legitimises existing policy regarding the non-charging to certain groups such as 16 to 19-year-olds.

It is also content with clause 16 in the bill which it says opens the way for further education students receiving funding in the same way as undergraduates.


VICE chancellors and university teacher trainers reacted with anger at the legislative powers in the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. These will allow the schools' inspectors to "enter, inspect and report" on university teacher training. Universities have accepted that Ofsted inspectors can enter their premises as part of their funding agreements with the Teacher Training Agency. But many see the new powers as unnecessary and provocative.

Patricia Ambrose, policy adviser at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said she was "very concerned". "We are seeking clarification as to why the government thinks it is necessary to write this into legislation. This is a very significant step for them to have taken."

Mary Russell, secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, said she shared the CVCP's concerns. "The timing is particularly unhelpful," she said. "The relationship between teacher trainers and Ofsted, in the last year or two have been difficult. Now we are at a delicate stage and we are all trying to work towards a more fruitful relationships, and we don't want to damage that."

The teacher training provision in the bill appears also to have split the political parties. Stephen Dorrell, education spokesman for the Conservatives, has dismissed the bill in general as "sweeping and draconian". Don Foster, spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, acknowledged that the measures could be seen as an attack on autonomy, but said that he did not think they were.

"Teacher training is a professional course, like law, which is franchised to universities," said Mr Foster, "We have a right to quality monitoring."

* There is also widespread dismay among Scottish higher education institutions over the clause. Official reaction is moderate, but many academics are infuriated by what they consider an unnecessary English import. Teacher education courses, unlike those south of the border, are funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, and come under SHEFC's quality assessment system. Current merger proposals make it likely that all teacher education courses will be taught in universities within a few years.

Richard Johnstone, convener of the Scottish Teacher Education Committee which includes the heads of all education faculties and institutes, said the announcement had been "sprung on" them by the Scottish Office at the end of a meeting, and they had had no chance to discuss it. "All the institutions in Scotland that provide initial teacher training are already under quite a substantial microscope. There is accreditation by the General Teaching Council for Scotland, Scottish Office Education and Industry Department approval, and teaching quality assessment."


VICE chancellors are worried that the bill will stop them charging fees such as laboratory fees and field trip costs. Sir Eric Ash, treasurer of the Royal Society, said he did not believe there were many universities which charged significant laboratory fees for undergraduates. However, there were field trips for biologists and geologists to which they contributed financially.

"Personally, I would not imagine that the government wants to make a change in the requirements from undergraduates for contributions to field trips," he said. "I hope this will be clarified."

Katharine Crouan, head of Winchester School of Art, said: "We ask our students to pay an Pounds 80 studio fee. We use that money to purchase materials, many of which would be prohibitively expensive or unobtainable to the individual purchaser."

Kenneth Edwards, vice chancellor of Leicester University, said on the face of it the bill looked potentially worrying for subjects such as geography and geology which made extra charges for field trips.

Alan Wilson, vice chancellor of Leeds University, said: "We would be worried if the bill mitigated against the charging of fees for field trips. Almost all geography departments have student contributions to field trips."

John Tarrant, vice chancellor of Huddersfield University, said: "Field course charges are not tuition fees, they are to cover transport and accommodation and not tuition. It is a matter of concern to all of us in the discipline that field course work is not damaged."

* There are no official figures for how much money universities make from these extra charges, but the National Union of Students estimates that students pay Pounds 170 million a year for these "hidden" course costs.

Carried out a year ago, an NUS survey concluded that on average students pay more than Pounds 500 each for photocopies, laboratory fees, computer software, field trips and even graduation ceremonies.

The 1996 Hidden Course Costs Survey covered 39 institutions including the universities of Bath, East Anglia, Oxford, Swansea and Ulster. 405 students responded.

Of the ten subjects covered, students taking French fork out the most - Pounds 1,043 - while occupational therapy students pay the least, Pounds 3. Travel costs arising, for instance, from placements and field trips, average Pounds 179 a year. Buying books and written materials add another Pounds 177 to the average bill, while computer costs average Pounds 90.

Hidden course costs by subject(per year)

Subject........... .,Pounds

French .............1043.52

Graphic Design ......842.60

Architecture ........790.81

Law .................606.09

Economics ...........497.47

Medicine ............494.75

Engineering .........493.04

Psychology ..........357.89

Chemistry ...........314.60

Occupational Therapy 2.75

Average .............571.35

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