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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 12:33 GMT
University funding shake-up unveiled
Student protest
Students have protested against increasing fees
The future of student fees and university funding is being revealed in the Commons.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke is telling MPs of the government's controversial plans to allow universities to raise tuition fees.

He is presenting the government's long-delayed review of higher education.

It is expected that students will face a higher level of tuition fees - up to 3,000 per year - and they could leave with average debts of up to 15,000.

And for the first time, universities could be allowed to set different levels of fees.

The controversial plans have caused splits in the Cabinet and led student groups to claim the new fee structure will encourage elitism.

Higher limit for tuition fees, up to 3,000
Universities set own fees
Scrapping of up-front fees
Re-payment after graduation
'Access regulator' to ensure wider intake
Return of maintenance grants

One of the first announcements was that the government would publish an annual comprehensive student survey of university teaching standards.

Mr Clarke also confirmed there would be an "access regulator", which will require universities to take an agreed number of students from poorer backgrounds.

This broadening of intake will be a condition of being able to charge students a higher level of tuition fees.

The government is also expected to scrap "up-front" fees - the maximum for next year is 1,125 - with repayments to be made when students are working and their earnings reach 15,000.

The detail of how this will operate will be scrutinised by students, likely to face many years of repayment of a mortgage-style loan.

The increase in fees is intended to tackle the budget shortfalls facing many universities - and Mr Clarke will also unveil its plans for university funding.

The "new" universities will be looking carefully to see if there will be any limits placed on their funding for research.

The government wants at least half of young people to enter higher education.

Return for grants?

And to encourage more people, particularly from poorer backgrounds, to apply for university, the education secretary is likely to announce a limited return of maintenance grants.

This might happen as early as 2004 - with higher fees not coming in until 2006, after the next election, in keeping with the last manifesto pledge not to bring in top-up fees.

Allowing universities to set different fee levels will just heighten the perceived elitism of some of our institutions

Mandy Telford, National Union of Students president

Since it was announced in 2001, the higher education review has been a political battleground.

Labour backbenchers have been unhappy at the prospect of students facing large debts - about a quarter of them have signed a motion opposing higher fees.

Immediately after announcing his plans to the Commons at lunchtime, the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is to meet Labour MPs to try to win them over.

Pay as you learn

And students have argued that allowing universities to charge different levels of fees will mean that applications will depend on ability to pay rather than ability to learn.

"Allowing universities to set different fee levels will just heighten the perceived elitism of some of our institutions," says Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students.

"Rich students will be able to pick and choose their course, while poorer students will be forced to shop around to find something that fits in their price range."

There were protests when it appeared that the government was in favour of increasing up-front fees.

Ahead of the publication of the White Paper, the Conservative education spokesperson, Damian Green, has attacked the prospect of a regulator influencing university admission.

"Students, parents and universities are right to be worried about what they are going to hear today," he said.

"The burden of debt for students will rise sharply, parents will be worried that their child may be told by a regulator that they will not be allowed to go to a university of their choice."

Elsewhere in the UK

The main thrust of the proposals will be for England.

On Tuesday it was leaked that responsibility for student fees in Wales would be devolved to the Assembly in Cardiff. The education minister is due to make a statement there on Wednesday afternoon.

In Scotland up-front tuition fees were never introduced for Scottish students, and ministers have made it clear they are against top-up fees.

There are fears of an influx of English "fee refugees" - with some talk that there might have to be a quota system of some sort.

Northern Ireland's two universities say they are "in limbo". They are funded through the English higher education funding council.

The direct rule education minister, Jane Kennedy, has told them nothing will change until power is again devolved - whenever that is.

  The BBC's Sue Littlemore
"Different universities will be able to charge different fees"
  The BBC's Kim Catcheside
"All fees can now be paid after graduation"
  Will Straw, President Oxford Student Union
"It will make it a very difficult decision for Students"

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Analysis: Mike Baker

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See also:

20 Jan 03 | Education
14 Jan 03 | Education
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