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Last Updated: Monday, 5 January, 2004, 14:07 GMT
Universities warn MPs on fees
University lecture
Universities want to stop fees rebels from scrapping the funding plans
Universities are appealing to MPs not to block the government's plans to increase student fees.

Universities UK, representing university chiefs, says it has contacted every MP, in an attempt to persuade them to support the fees plan.

The government is expected to face a backbench rebellion over proposals to raise student fees to 3,000 per year.

But universities say they are in urgent need of the extra funds - and that poorer students will not be excluded.

There has been speculation that the government will present its higher education funding proposals later this week - and universities are asking MPs not to vote against allowing an increase in fees.

University funding shortfall
Universities say public funding per student has fallen by 37% between 1989-2002
'Investment backlog' of 9.94bn
Source: Universities UK

MPs have been contacted individually by universities and there have been invitations to receptions and presentations.

Universities say that raising fees is the "best option currently available to start addressing the funding crisis in higher education" - and they fear that if the proposals are defeated, they will be left without the extra cash which they say they need.

Universities UK, representing vice-chancellors, says that it backs the concept of students making a contribution towards their higher education.

And it supports the principle of university becoming "free at the point of use" - as the proposed fees would not be repayable until students had graduated and reached an earnings threshold of 15,000. At present, fees have to be paid up-front, as they enter university.

'Two-tier system'

While the universities are lining up in support of the government, they are faced by a broad-ranging opposition to fees which includes the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and student unions - plus an uncertain number of Labour backbenchers.

Labour opponents of the fees plan have been particularly critical of the concept of "variable" fees, in which universities will no longer have a flat-rate for fees, but will be able to set an individual price for courses, up to a limit of 3,000 per year.

There have been accusations that this will create a two-tier system, in which the most prestigious universities will charge the highest fees - which will encourage poorer students to pick courses on cost rather than academic appropriateness.

Universities UK reject these claims, saying that there is no certainty that there will be such a price divide between high and low status universities - and that there will be a more complex pattern of charges.

As an example, it says that "the fees for a physics course - important but low demand - could be reduced".

But the universities organisation also highlights the "critical" importance of providing maintenance grants for students from low-income backgrounds to offset their fears about debt.

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