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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 November, 2003, 17:01 GMT
Universities 'want full 3,000'
Proposed legislation on fees is expected in the Queen's Speech
Most universities in England will charge the maximum 3,000 "top-up" fee, a survey suggests.

Many would like to charge much more under controversial legislation expected in Wednesday's Queen's Speech.

BBC researchers contacted 83 universities in England in what is thought to be the most comprehensive audit yet of their intentions.

Of the 42 which responded in detail, 90% said they would or might charge students the full 3,000 a year.

Almost two-thirds said they had decided definitely to charge the full amount, while only 10% said they would definitely charge less.

Deterrent effect

Half were not convinced that 3,000 tuition fees would be enough.

A quarter said they would like to charge more - ideally between 5,000 and 7,000.

Universities were divided over how the proposed fees would affect student applications, with 48% feeling they would deter poorer students from applying and 40% feeling they would have no effect.

Two universities commented that the proposals should be fairer than the present system, because they shifted payment to the end of the course rather than requiring an upfront fee.

Several stressed the importance of government support for students, in the form of bursaries, scholarships or increased maintenance grants.

One said there "may be a serious effect on middle income families, especially those who have already paid out for private education... Debt aversion varies according to culture as well as class."

When asked how they as institutions would be affected if higher fees were not introduced, most replied along the lines of "continued under-funding", "deterioration in infrastructure" or "reduction in quality of teaching".

A few used words such as "severe" and "disastrous" to describe the effect on their finances.

None of the universities said they planned to go private if fees were not increased although one said it "might consider setting up wholly-owned private companies to provide some teaching."

Alternative income

When asked how they would raise alternative revenues, most said they would look to more overseas students and other self-payers such as postgraduates.

One university said it might have to shut its engineering department, and another that it would cut back on maintenance.

One said: "It is fantasy to suggest the shortfall we are experiencing can be met by alternative sources. The gap is of too great a magnitude."

The universities took part in the survey, for the BBC's Six O'Clock News, on condition that they could do so anonymously.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: "We expect different fees to operate across universities and within universities.

"Just because a university says it will charge the full amount now doesn't mean they will charge this across their campus.

Why does everybody think that education should be a free-ride?
Keith, UK

"The variability will give universities the important freedom to change fees to reflect or stimulate demand of particular courses."

The 3,000 level was "non-negotiable".

'Second best'

But the survey findings tend to bear out comments by the vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, Malcolm McVicar, who says that "very reluctantly" he is preparing to recommend charging 3,000 fees across the board.

Means-tested 1,000 grants from 2004
Upfront tuition fees end 2006
Fees then vary - up to 3,000 a year
First 1,125 subsidised for poor
Payable from graduate salary of 15,000+
Zero-rated student loan up to 4,000 a year
New access regulator
Teaching-only "universities"
Research funding for the elite
50% participation through foundation degrees
He predicts that others will do the same, resulting in "a standard fee of 3,000, everywhere".

"Faced with a regime under which supposedly 'elite' universities bring in fees of 3,000, what are supposedly non-elite universities to do?" he asked in a letter to The Guardian.

"Charge less than 3,000 and invite potential students to view them as second-best?"

Dr McVicar said the need to increase funding without increasing direct taxation was an argument for some increase in the current means-tested fee.

But he said it was not an argument for a move to a free market in higher education, "which is what differential fees mean".

Meanwhile the Russell Group of research-led universities has indicated it is abandoning plans to lobby for a 5,000-a-year fee because ministers will not entertain this.

Sir Michael Stirling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chair of the group, said: "I think we have accepted the inevitable. We don't think it is right but it is a question of political realities."

The BBC's James Westhead
"Universities like Birmingham are desperate for higher fees"

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