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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August, 2003, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Universities campaign for top-ups
Professor Ivor Crewe
Professor Crewe: "They are the best compromise proposals"
University chiefs are to go on the offensive in a battle to persuade MPs and the public that top-up fees would be a good thing.

Under controversial proposals, universities in England could charge tuition fees of up to 3,000 from 2006 - up 1,900 from the present level.

The legislation is due to come to the Commons in the autumn for what is expected to be a bumpy ride.

The proposals are opposed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and dozens of Labour backbenchers are also thought to be against them.

Critics say the changes will put off poorer students from going to university because they will be worried about debt.

But the university chiefs say the proposals would bring in a fairer system than the present one - as well as delivering much-needed funds to higher education.

Bad press

Professor Ivor Crewe has just taken over as the new head of Universities UK - the organisation which represents the chief executives of Britain's universities.

In an interview with BBC News Online, he said the government's proposals had had a bad press.

"We think they are the best compromise proposals from a whole set of difficult alternatives," he said.

"Universities really do need more money if the sector is to expand as the government and most people want.

"And shouldn't those who have most to gain from getting a degree make a contribution?

We are ahead in terms of patents, citations or prizes - whichever measure you take
Professor Ivor Crewe, Universities UK
"Under the new system, students and their parents will have to find less money up-front than they already do.

"They will only have to pay back after graduation."

That's the message that university vice-chancellors will be taking to their local MPs when they meet them in the weeks to come in an attempt to win support for the Higher Education Bill.

Professor Crewe says his colleagues will be spelling out the consequences for universities and for the areas they are in if the plans do not go ahead.

"They will explain why universities need more resources and what the consequences will be if they don't get them - departments closing down for example - and the possible effects on the local economy," said Professor Crewe.

Bursting point

As well as trying to win over MPs and the public, university chiefs will also be lobbying the government for more money - for both facilities and staff.

Professor Crewe, who is the vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said: "Most universities are full to bursting point. They need much better facilities to deal with the expected increase in numbers."

The government wants to increase the number of young people going to university to 50% of the population by 2010 - a target Professor Crewe believes will be met.

But universities say they will need more staff and better facilities to cope with the numbers.

Professor Crewe says on present trends alone, there will be at least an extra 15,000 more undergraduates by the end of the decade - calling he says, for an extra 10,000 staff.

"Where are they going to come from? Salaries are not competitive and it is very difficult to recruit, especially in shortage subjects."

A lecturer starting out in their late 20s or early 30s, he says, starts on a salary of barely 20,000.

Despite the concerns over future funding, Professor Crewe says there is much to be proud of in British universities.

He points to the low drop-out rate from UK universities compared with other countries in the developed world. Only Japan, he says has a rate lower than that of the UK.

And in terms of research, Britain is a word-leader, he says.

"By any measure, we are still second to the USA on research.

"People often think research will be better in Germany, Japan or Switzerland, but it's not true. We are ahead in terms of patents, citations or prizes - whichever measure you take.

"My hope for the sector is that the public recognises that universities serve British interests and that the government recognises this by investing and by trusting universities to go on doing a good job."

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