MPs join unions in fight against top-up fees

11 Dec 03
If the issue of foundation hospitals made 2003 a rough year for the government, top-up fees look likely to produce a repeat performance in 2004.

12 December 2003

If the issue of foundation hospitals made 2003 a rough year for the government, top-up fees look likely to produce a repeat performance in 2004.

In the eyes of critics, allowing universities the freedom to vary their fee rates could leave the higher education sector open to the vagaries of market forces and abandons the key Labour principle of education for all.

The proposed scrapping of flat-rate, upfront tuition fees and the creation of an Office for Fair Access have been all but forgotten amid the controversy that has attended the idea of allowing universities to charge up to £3,000 a year for their courses.

Teaching and student unions have been vehement in their opposition, arguing that top-up fees would deter poorer students from applying to university and leave graduates to begin their working lives burdened with debt.

The reaction of Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, is typical. He says the government has no appreciation of the fear poorer families have of debt. 'They have seen the havoc caused to families by debt and they do not want to start their working lives with this millstone round their neck.'

To compound the government's woes, 156 Labour MPs have already signed an early day motion opposing the idea and calling for discussion of alternative funding models – only 81 defying the whips would be needed to trigger a Commons defeat.

The case for variable fees is being driven by the need to increase investment and widen access. The government wants to see participation in higher education increase from 43% to 50% of under 30-year-olds by 2010.

Ministers say these extra graduates are needed to sustain economic growth and put the UK on a par with countries that already have HE participation rates close to, or more than, 50%. Even without this target, universities argue that demand will increase by up to 150,000 places over the next few years and money to fund these will have to come from somewhere.

Universities UK is the one key stakeholder to have lent unequivocal support to the plans, arguing they will bring in much-needed extra income of up to £1.4bn a year.

Professor Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, says: 'We believe the proposals are the best option currently available to start addressing the funding crisis in higher education. It brings in the most money, makes higher education free at the point of use and is coupled with the reintroduction of maintenance grants and a zero real rate of interest on loans. The proposed graduate contributions – the repayments – are both reasonable and fair. A graduate on £18,000 will pay £5.19 a week.'

Crewe rejects the charge that the policy could lead to spiralling fees and a two-tier university sector. 'It's important to emphasise that UK higher education is already very diverse and it is too simplistic to talk in terms of "two tiers",' he says.

'It's true that some universities would have liked the cap to have been set slightly higher; however, it is the government which will control the cap. It is worth remembering that universities already operate responsibly in a flexible fee market for part-time, postgraduate and international students,' he says.

In addition to the support of the university sector, ministers might also be encouraged by signs that the policy is playing better among the electorate than the unions. A recent Populus survey found a majority of voters thought the proposals were fair.

Higher education minister Alan Johnson told MPs last week that rather than excluding the poorest, the reintroduction of the maintenance grant marked the 'best opportunity to close the social class gap' that affects university admissions.

He says focusing solely on top-up fees ignores the rest of the government's education agenda and its attempt to break cycles of deprivation by intervening in early years education.

University is the 'minor part' of the job, he says. 'People talk of being the first in their family going to university and the introduction of fees is pulling the ladder up behind them. My point is we're removing the ladder to build a wide staircase from early years right through to university.'


Did you enjoy this article?