Variable top-up fees: invariably unpopular

December 19, 2003

Will Labour MPs really let the higher education bill fail? The THES reports

Peter Bradley, Labour MP for Wrekin and private parliamentary secretary to Alun Michael, minister of state for rural affairs and local environmental quality, does not like to countenance the idea of the higher education bill failing.

He is joint author, with Labour MP Alan Whitehead, of a proposal for a flat-rate fee of £2,500 combined with significant grants for students, paid for in part by the abolition of the fee-waiver for poorer students.

He welcomed the government's decision to postpone the publication of the bill, announced in the Queen's speech last month. He said: "The government clearly wants time to persuade the doubters round to its way of thinking.

We want time to persuade the government round to our way of thinking."

Both Mr Bradley and Dr Whitehead met with ministers last week and found higher education minister Alan Johnson receptive.

Mr Bradley said: "Alan Johnson is certainly in listening mode, and both sides are looking at concessions."

What motivates Mr Bradley's dislike of the variable fee is his fear that it will advantage a few universities and severely disadvantage the majority.

"We sent our proposals to all vice-chancellors and, of those who have responded, the vast majority are opposed to variable fees. We want a funding system that works for all of higher education," he said.

Mr Bradley will not be persuaded even if Oxbridge increases its intake of disadvantaged students. "I do not want to see a system where a few universities are able to provide a good education and the rest decline," he stressed. He said he was extremely concerned that government proposals to force universities to fund bursaries out of fees would put an extra burden on poorer universities.

Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, believed the government proposals for top-up fees were "not worth having. I would rather see this bill fail."

In fact, he thought the government should pay a little more attention to Conservative proposals to stop expansion.

"The government should change its target for 50 per cent participation from 2010 to 2015. They should certainly stop ridiculing the Conservative proposals," he said, adding that cramming more students into universities was like "holing a ship below the waterline".

His starting point was that the government had managed to get itself into a political black hole without any clear idea of how underfunded universities were. He said: "We all acknowledge that for the past 25 years higher education has been hugely underfunded. But the only people to put a figure on this are the vice-chancellors with their call for £10 billion. You can't just take their word for this. The government needs to conduct its own audit."

He said that variable top-up fees would not bring in anywhere near enough to solve universities' problems.

"I am really quite angry. When I asked Alan Johnson how much universities needed, he replied that that was not the point. He said this is all about expressing confidence in the government. They cannot use crude tactics like that. This is a serious problem."

Frank Dobson, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, represents a constituency that includes University College London. He insisted he would "certainly vote against the bill" on its second reading - although he would consider "abstaining reluctantly" if it omitted plans for variable fees.

"I am pretty fundamental about [my opposition]. My objection is not just to variable fees - but I am more opposed to variable fees than to the rest of the bill. We have a class-ridden higher education system, and if you have variable fees it would exacerbate it," he warned.

He said that, nationally, students would see little improvement in teaching if higher fees were introduced, whether they were studying in research-intensive universities or teaching-led institutions.

"Most of the places that are pressing hard for variable fees are not going to spend the money on undergraduates," he said. "It's for research, and if the country wants to spend money on research it should come from the tax payer.

"Even if money were to be spent on undergraduates, the money would not go to those universities that have the worst staff-student ratios."

He is passionate about the social justice element of getting more people from low-income backgrounds into higher education but insisted that it was fair for the taxpayer to foot the bill.

He said: "I am fully aware of and support the need for universities to have more money, but that doesn't mean I have to support the dangerous step of variable fees."

Barbara Roche, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, is more wavering in her rebelliousness. She said: "I have never, ever voted against the government, but I am so unhappy with variable fees. At a time when we are trying to widen access to elite universities it will not help because of the perception of unmanageable debt. And the fees will go up.

"The Department for Education and Skills should publish all the models. At the end of the day, there has to be a balance between money coming out of taxation and the graduate paying."

Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge, said: "I would be worried if the bill fell. There are things I support in it - the abolition of upfront fees, a better repayment system and the reintroduction of grants.

"I need to see the bill and the concessions before making up my mind, but I am inclined to vote for the bill at second reading and then seek amendments at report stage."

She was hopeful that the government would introduce a more general and generous grant system. However, she made it clear that she was fundamentally opposed to variable fees: "I don't like the idea of a market in higher education. I cannot see why the government wants to move away from a flat-rate fee."

Huw Edwards, MP for Monmouth, is firmly against variable fees and not persuaded by the Charles Clarke seminars. "I don't like going to meetings with whips taking the register," he said.

However, he is Welsh and there is a chink in his armour: "Charles Clarke pointed out to me that this bill will allow Wales to do its own thing. I certainly support it on the devolution issue."

Mr Edwards, a former senior lecturer in social policy at Brighton University, spelt out his opposition to variable fees in a letter to the education secretary last month. In it he says: "I regret that the current government proposals would mean university applicants and their parents having to consider, for example, whether they will apply to university at Cambridge, Coventry or Cardiff on the basis of how much a similar course will cost at each institution. In practice, this will mean that the current Ucas handbook will become a 'sales catalogue' in which university courses are priced."

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