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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 15:23 GMT
Universities' fees dilemma
University vice-chancellors are mulling over whether they should use their new freedom to charge students higher tuition fees.

None seems to be impressed with the idea of the Access Regulator, who will decide whether they are doing enough to bring in more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

That approval is the key to charging higher fees.

But there are other considerations - with some of the most expensive courses to run being hard to recruit to.

The Commons education select committee has announced an inquiry into the government's White Paper.

English members of the elite Russell Group of research-led universities said in a statement on Wednesday that the proposals were a "welcome step in the future development of higher education in England".

What to do?

The statement said nothing on fees. But it is thought universities will have to decide in the next 12 months what they are going to do, to prepare their prospectuses for 2006.

The dilemma is epitomised by the University of Liverpool - a member of the Russell Group.

Liverpool was highly unlikely ever to have been charging 10,000
Liverpool's vice-chancellor, Drummond Bone
It was one of two institutions praised by the education secretary as having done much to widen access to people without a family tradition of going to university (the other being Sheffield).

What does it do with courses which are expensive to run, such as engineering?

"We really are caught here," said Liverpool's vice-chancellor, Professor Drummond Bone.

"They are the high-cost courses but they are the ones that are hard to recruit onto."


His personal opinion is that the temptation will be to look at which courses are in high demand and to charge the maximum possible 3,000 a year fee from 2006 - and use that to cross-subsidise the less popular courses.

As for the effect on access, he warmly welcomes the removal of up-front fees, which he says do have a psychological impact.

Thames Valley University (TVU) aims "to provide high quality, relevant and up-to-date vocational education and training to all those who can benefit".

It anticipates an inevitable "upward drift" in student fees.

"Given our commitment to broadening opportunities, we will do all we can to keep student fees as low as possible," a spokesperson said.

But the new fees structure was bound to add complexity to the system.

"Feedback from students selecting a university, and their advisers, indicates that they already find this process daunting and at times baffling.

"The variability of fees for the same course in different institutions and maybe from year to year, will undoubtedly make this decision-making process even more complicated and confusing."

'Not thought through'

The vice-chancellor of Coventry University, Dr Michael Goldstein, was - like most university leaders - at a meeting of their umbrella group, Universities UK, last Friday attended by the Higher Education Minister, Margaret Hodge.

We already have enough regulation
Coventry's vice-chancellor, Michael Goldstein
His impression was that there were "a number of places in the strategy where there are clearly opportunities for the sector to help the government out".

"I wouldn't say they haven't got a clue, but there are some areas where they really haven't thought through things."

For example, the idea of a national network of higher education centres to validate foundation degrees offered by further education colleges was "totally unnecessary", costly and time-wasting.

And the Access Regulator was "actually quite offensive" as well as unnecessary.

Possible problem

Dr Goldstein said he understood the politics of having such a person, but the remit could have been covered by a simple condition attached to the grant universities get from the funding council.

Liverpool's Professor Bone said much would depend on who did the job.

"If we are given somebody who is 'hands on' and thinks he actually understands more about university admissions and recruitment than the universities, then it's going to be counter-productive."

The real problem was in schools, as even the government acknowledged.

"If the Access Regulator is about spreading good practice, fine," said Prof Bone.

"If the Access Regulator is about trying to run our business, then not fine."

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