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The BBC's Robin Chrystal
"An acknowledgement from Downing St. that this is a live issue"
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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
'Top-up' fees threat for students
Oxford university
Oxford has already been accused of élitism
Students at leading universities could have to pay £6,000 extra a year in fees, under proposals being considered by university heads.

Such a proposal is likely to re-ignite accusations that universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are bastions of privilege and inaccessible to the less well-off.

A study commissioned by a group of the most prestigious universities in the UK - the Russell Group - is believed to have recommended that students at the most successful colleges should pay additional fees.

David Blunkett
David Blunkett has promised that there will be no top up fees while he is education secretary
Although still at an early consultative stage, the report is believed to have projected figures of £4,000 a year for arts students and £6,000 for science - in addition to the government levied tuition fee of £1,025.

But any move towards seeking "top-up" fees would put universities on a collision course with the government, which is already accusing universities such as Oxford and Cambridge of drawing too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Funding shortfall

Education Secretary David Blunkett recently told delegates at the Association of University Teachers' conference that he would never accept a top-up fees system which allowed universities to set their own level of fees.

Since the government is committed to paying for the least well-off students, he said that it would create an unacceptable position in which the government was obliged to pick up the bill for whatever universities decided to charge.

The report into top-up fees has been prompted by worries over a lack of funding for higher education - with vice-chancellors seeking ways of increasing income.

For heavily over-subscribed, leading universities, which could charge a high "market rate" for courses, the top-up fee system would provide another revenue stream.

Student opposition

And under the proposals to be considered by vice chancellors there would be provisions for means testing, so that students from poor backgrounds would not be denied places because of a lack of money.

Students' leaders have been vehemently opposed to top-up fees, claiming that they would be socially divisive and would create a higher education system based on wealth rather than ability.

The National Union of Students on Wednesday called for the government to make its opposition to tuition fees a manifesto pledge.

There has also been criticism of top-up fees from the leader from the Association of University Teachers, which says this will "slam the door" on less well-off students.

"Top-up fees will hurt students from less wealthy backgrounds - the very students the government rightly insists we must help," said the union's general secretary, David Triesman.

It is expected that the Russell Group will respond to the report later this summer - with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals also set to report on funding later this year.

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See also:

28 May 00 | Education
Ministers plan anti-elitism campaign
26 May 00 | Education
Chancellor attacks Oxford admissions
25 Feb 00 | Education
Students want ban on 'top-up fees'
26 May 00 | Education
Call for university quotas
03 Mar 00 | Education
Universities launch funding inquiry
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