Value for money under scrutiny

March 21, 1997

The new quality agency for higher education, which begins work next month, may scrutinise the claims to excellence of institutions that charge top-up fees.

The Dearing committee of inquiry is considering suggestions made by Roger Brown, chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, that the agency check the quality assertions of institutions against fee levels.

At a conference on the agency, attended by Sir Ron, Mr Brown said: "We are all working on the assumption that everyone offers the same product. If we are moving to a more differentiated system, what kind of quality assurance will we need in those circumstances? If institutions are charging differentiated fees the market may demand a view as to whether it is worth paying extra."

Oxford, Cambridge, Aston and Nottingham universities have all warned in their undergraduate prospectuses for 1998/99 that they might introduce top-up fees, while Bristol has issued a similar warning to local schools and colleges. They are responding to legal advice that fees could not be introduced for 1998/99 without such notice, and say it is a matter of keeping the option available rather than any desire to introduce fees.

Sir Ron is also looking at calls for the quality agency to introduce some means of policing the overseas partnership and franchising activities of British institutions, in an attempt to stamp out potentially damaging bad practice.

Gillian Shephard, secretary of state for education and employment, has written to Sir William Fraser, chairman of the joint planning group which drafted plans for the new agency, stressing that "the issue of standards and qualifications is of considerable importance to the Government".

The British Council is planning to write to Sir Ron to underline its concern on the overseas market. It has also drawn up a statement of understanding with the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals on overseas policy and activities.

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