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The BBC's Mike Baker
"One option is to relate top up fees to teaching costs"
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Report author Professor David Greenaway
"The global market is becoming more competitive for students"
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Thursday, 6 July, 2000, 23:17 GMT 00:17 UK
Students could face big fee rise
Universities such as Oxford could charge much more
Students could face fees of thousands of pounds under proposals in a report commissioned by a group of leading UK universities.

Instead of the current system of flat-rate tuition fees, the report outlines a future in which universities could raise extra funds by setting their own charges for courses - in the form of so-called "top-up" or "flexible" fees.

With flexible fees, the milkman would no longer be paying for the degree of an old Etonian

Nicholas Barr, London School of Economics
Poorer students would be offered an expanded system of scholarships and grants, designed to ensure that access to higher education was still available to all with the necessary ability.

In response, the government has re-iterated its opposition to the principle of top-up fees, which the Education Secretary David Blunkett once promised would never be introduced while he was in office.

Owain James
Owain James says the proposals will mean a two-tier system
Student unions have been angered by the proposal and promise to campaign strongly against the emergence of top-up fees as the future of student funding.

They argue that setting a different price tag on universities and individual courses will mean that students would apply on the grounds of affordability rather than their own ability.

And if fees for courses at universities such as Oxford and Cambridge were set at a much higher rate, they argue it would mean an even greater likelihood of social exclusivity.

The hypocrisy of the report is incredible

Student leader Owain James
"The hypocrisy of the report is incredible," said National Union of Students president, Owain James.

Top-up fees cannot fail but to increase social exclusion.... How could the inevitable creation of a two-tier education system and the prospect of huge levels of debt do anything but worsen the problem?"

The report, commissioned by the Russell Group, representing the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, suggests that expensive and popular courses, such as medicine, could charge students up to four and a half times more than other courses.

Using a "base" fee of 1,000 per year for the cheapest course, this would mean students paying 4,500 a year for more expensive courses - or 13,500 over three years - not counting living and accommodation costs.

David Greenaway
David Greenaway says the present system has not proved to be socially inclusive
The report, written by David Greenaway and Michelle Haynes of the University of Nottingham, is an attempt to find ways of overcoming the higher education funding shortfall.

Without the prospect of any major increase in government funding and with the expectation of a larger number of students, universities are seeking a way of increasing budgets.

Fairer system

Nicholas Barr, reader in economics at the London School of Economics and adviser to the report, said that flexible fees would allow for a fairer system than at present.

This would depend upon providing a more effective student loans system, he said, which would cover all expenses for fees and living costs and would be paid back as a proportion of earnings after graduation.

The extra funding for scholarships for poorer students would come from savings in the student loan system, to be achieved by removing the artificially low interest rate on student loans.

At present, Dr Barr argues that the funding system fails to deliver social inclusion in higher education and that it subsidises the least needy middle-class families by offering a valuable university education at an artificially low cost.

Under a system of flexible fees, he says "the milkman would no longer be paying for the degree of an old Etonian".

Bankrupt universities

Although the government has so far been steadfastly opposed to top-up fees, Dr Barr predicted that financial pressures - and the threat of universities going bankrupt - will force the government to re-consider and accept the need for flexible fees.

The report was commissioned by the so-called Russell Group of top universities. It is likely that they will be divided over the report.

A meeting to debate its contents due to be held in the autumn.

The students' union at Oxford University has expressed its "outrage" at the proposals and has called on the university to speak out against top-up fees.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, which is holding its own inquiry into funding, has so far refused to be drawn into supporting or opposing top-up fees.

In response to the report, the organisation for university chiefs said that debating such specific approaches to funding was "premature".

The Conservative party has also opted to keep an "open mind" on the report, with the promise of unveiling its own policy on higher education later in the year.

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See also:

07 Jul 00 | Education
Students say top-up fees cut access
03 Jul 00 | Education
Fees threat alarms students
26 May 00 | Education
Chancellor attacks Oxford admissions
31 May 00 | Education
'Top-up' fees threat for students
07 Mar 00 | Education
Students lobby over 'top-up fees'
25 Feb 00 | Education
Students want ban on 'top-up fees'
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