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Friday, 3 March, 2000, 03:40 GMT
Universities launch funding inquiry
bristol uni
Top universities are considering 'top up' fees
University vice chancellors are to hold a wide-ranging inquiry into funding.

The inquiry will take in the controversial student tuition fees - and the even more controversial idea that the top institutions should be allowed to charge students much higher fees.

The move follows the announcement on Thursday that universities in England are to get a 1% budget cut in real terms for next year.

The head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Sir Brian Fender, said this could leave universities struggling to recruit and retain academic staff.

Now, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the UK Universities (CVCP) said it was to lead a study into the funding universities needed "to meet the challenge of the 21st century - in particular maintaining global competitiveness and expanding opportunities".

Howard Newby, president of CVCP, said this would "consider the implications of various funding options for students and their families, for universities and the higher education sector as a whole".

Elite grouping

Currently tuition fees are up to 1,025 a year, means-tested, for all - with the complication that Scottish students studying in Scotland will no longer have to pay fees in advance. Instead, they will start to repay 2,000 once their salary after graduation reaches 10,000.

The CVCP study will "take account of" the recently-commissioned work by the informal Russell Group of elite universities on differential fees.

The Russell Group has just asked a team of economists to undertake "a full appraisal of different funding options and the practical implications of their implementation".

The group did say it wanted a system that "would guarantee access to higher education for all students that could benefit from the opportunity, regardless of personal circumstances."

But underlying the appraisal is the idea of "top up" fees, allowing them to raise the extra funds they say they need for research projects and to retain senior academics.

Best courses - highest fees

And there have been suggestions that the prime minister is increasingly open to the idea of there being a "premier league" of perhaps 20 universities, no doubt based on the Russell Group.

These would offer the best quality courses - and charge students several thousand pounds a year.

The CVCP said that, in his recent speech on modernising higher education, Education Secretary David Blunkett had acknowledged that discussion was needed about how to resource universities.

But, in his speech at the University of Greenwich last month, Mr Blunkett also specifically cautioned those who felt the UK could "replicate the North American model".

The government here was not in the business of subsidising people from low income families so they could "scrabble their way" into universities with very high fees levels, he said.

In remarks made after his speech, he said: "I've already made it clear that we won't pay top-up fees while I am secretary of state."

But he added: "I will not be secretary of state for ever."

The National Union of Students says top-up fees "would take higher education back into the dark ages of elitism and social privilege".

The CVCP inquiry into the whole funding issue is due to report in September.

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25 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Ministers defend fees deal
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