Universities are in serious decline. Many senior academics have recently used this, and the latest round of Government higher education spending cuts, to argue the case for top-up fees as a way out of the present crisis.
However, there can be no more short-sighted view. The Government would like nothing better than for universities to become their tax collectors, thus allowing them to duck a funding crisis of their own creation.
Top-up fees may well be in the interests of the richer universities, which will be able to charge large fees and maintain their student attraction rate. They are not in the interests of the vast majority of students, who will have to find an up-front fee in order to attend university.
The problem is that, unlike the Government, universities do not have the resources to allow payment of fees to be postponed until after graduation. Finding money up-front will be the single biggest deterrent for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and will negate the positive achievements that have recently been made through targeted access schemes. Even those who would possibly gain a scholarship may be deterred from attempting success within further education. Let us be under no illusions that it is only the exceptional few who will receive scholarships.
With top-up fees, means testing would also become the role of universities. The inevitable conclusion is that parents whose children do not receive a maintenance grant will have to find large sums of money in order to allow a private scholarship system to subsidise poorer students. Average ability students will be relegated to institutions whose only option is to cut teaching quality to a minimum instead of charging large fees.
Whether or not you believe higher education should be free, a student contribution paid through individual fees is depressingly inefficient and unjust. The United States, prime example of a private fees system, is even now talking about nationalising the system because of its inefficiency and exorbitant costs.
Labour have made it clear that a two-tier, top-up fee system is not acceptable to them. It would therefore be a foolhardy vice chancellor who opted for fees bearing in mind the practical reality that top-up fees cannot be put in place before September 1997. Secondly, our task is to ensure that Labour become committed to an accessible system of financing education, and do not inherit a sector preoccupied with financial accumulation and elitism.
Students unions are absolutely united in their condemnation of top-up fees as the worst possible option for students. Is it not about time that their voices were listened to? We must embark on a constructive approach to ensuring tomorrow's system of higher education is of high quality, free at the point of entry and accessible to all. We must find a method of funding a continued expansion of higher education, but a system that relies on ability to learn rather than ability to pay.
Simon Webber General secretary, University of Manchester Students' Union