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HE overview Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 20:07 GMT
So how much will they charge?
Students in a library
Will more choose to pay the going rate?
Mike Baker

Although these plans are the product of political compromise, they herald a university shake-up as fundamental as the massive concrete campus expansion of the 1960s and 70s.

Setting the right price will be difficult for many vice-chancellors

Future growth will come mainly at the former polytechnics and even at further education colleges, with a greater focus on teaching rather than research, and more two-year foundation degrees in vocational subjects.

Many of the newer universities, though, will breathe a sigh of relief that there is no proposal to strip some institutions of the right to award PhDs and turn them into teaching-only universities.

Top-up fees will splinter higher education.

What to charge

Some universities will charge the maximum for all courses, but others may even charge less than now.

There will be a real dilemma over whether to set a flat-rate fee for all a university's courses or to differentiate by subject.

Vice-chancellors who decide to differentiate fees will have the task of deciding whether to charge more for courses which are popular or for courses that are expensive to run.

If they do the latter, it could be even harder to recruit into subjects such as engineering or the pure sciences.

'Not enough'

Setting the right price will be difficult for many vice-chancellors who will be in a new market-led system but must also keep an eye on the new Access Regulator who will approve higher fees only if satisfied universities are doing enough to attract students from poorer homes.

For ministers the real test is what happens to the target of broadening access

Many resent this as outside interference.

Elite institutions are most disappointed by the "cap" on fees.

Imperial College, London wanted to charge students much more to earn the money to compete with the world's best.

Its rector, Sir Richard Sykes, says he will charge the maximum 3,000 for all courses - but that will still not cover the average cost of running them, of 10,500.

He says he's "a little disappointed that after all this time and effort they have not solved some of the fundamental problems of the university system".

Acid test

He says institutions like Imperial will not get any substantial extra income until 2006 or even 2010 and he fears that without this extra support Britain's top research universities will "slip further and further down the international chain".

For ministers, though, the real test is what happens to the target of broadening access to more students from poorer backgrounds.

According to the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, it is vital to change what he has called the "vicious statistic" showing that middle-class school-leavers are still three times more likely to go to university than those from poorer homes.

The success of that aim will depend on tens of thousands of decisions in individual homes about whether or not the new price of a degree is worth paying.

See also:

22 Jan 03 | HE overview
22 Jan 03 | HE reaction
22 Jan 03 | HE reaction
22 Jan 03 | HE case studies
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