Union demands fee promise

July 13, 2001

Lecturers' union Natfhe is demanding a government guarantee on the level of university tuition charges amid fears that increasing them could mean differential fees by the back door.

The union, due to have its first official meeting with higher education minister Margaret Hodge next Wednesday, will also argue for a means-tested funding mechanism for universities with the aim of increasing resources for post-1992 institutions.

Union officials are seeking a guarantee that there will be no increase in the maximum amount that universities can charge undergraduate students annually for tuition. They want the guarantee to apply for the duration of the present government.

Annual increases are limited to the rate of inflation, and from autumn, students will be liable to pay a maximum of £1,075 a year, £75 more than when fees were introduced in 1998. But the education secretary can prescribe any level of fee on approval by both Houses of Parliament.

Natfhe fears that pressure from the university sector, including institutions that favour differential fees, may persuade the government to consider raising fees by more than the rate of inflation.

Union officials said that this would lead to some institutions charging the maximum and others discounting courses. Differentiation could happen within institutions, with some courses cheaper than others.

Concerns over the prescribed level of fee have prompted the Liberal Democrats to seek a similar guarantee from ministers. David Laws, MP for Yeovil, hopes to table a parliamentary question to get one.

The Department for Education and Skills has said it has no plans to increase the level of fee prescribed by the secretary of state under the Teaching and Higher Education Act.

The Association of University Teachers, like Natfhe, is due to meet Ms Hodge next week. Both will argue for better pay, equal opportunities and more funding and against student hardship.

But Natfhe will spark a row if it calls for the means-testing of university funding, although certain funds, including those for improving access, would be discounted when assessing grants.

A spokesman said it may use The THES university "rich list" to back its argument. The list shows that ten universities hold more than a third of the net assets of the entire sector.

Natfhe will argue for fully funded sub-degree places, warning Ms Hodge that the government's expansion targets will be jeopardised if qualifications such as foundation degrees are seen as a cut-price higher education option.

The AUT, with the bulk of its members in old universities, is wary of Natfhe's claim for preferential treatment for new universities. General secretary David Triesman said that new universities did not receive less funding than pre-1992 institutions.

The AUT will point out to Ms Hodge that all universities need more money, stressing a correlation between investment in higher education and economic competitiveness.

The union will highlight the need for investment in university courses for social workers and community workers.

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