Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 00:00 UK

'No fee degrees' university plan

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

University cash
The level of university tuition fees is to be reviewed by the government

The government is considering "no fee degrees", in which students in England would not pay tuition fees - but would not get any loans or other support.

These could be aimed at university students living at home with their parents, allowing them to avoid debt.

The proposal is in a draft framework for the future of higher education.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says it might not be in the final version - and discussion of the plan remains "speculative".

But university leaders suggest the radical idea remains active and under consultation.

The no-fee degrees proposal would offer students the option of avoiding the cost of paying tuition fees, which are £3,225 per year from next year.

Quality concern

If fees were to be waived in this way, in exchange students would not be able to claim the package of financial support which can include low-interest loans and means-tested bursaries.

It is anticipated that this might be of interest to the growing number of students who now live at home while studying for degrees.

It might also appeal to students taking higher education courses in further education colleges.

The director general of the Russell Group of prestigious universities, Wendy Piatt, said there were concerns that such approaches should not reduce the quality of university courses.

The chair-elect of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities, Paul Wellings, says he welcomes "a diverse range of higher education provision", but emphasises the importance of maintaining quality.

"To ensure quality any new proposals must be fully funded by government - we will be cautious of any new proposals that result in cut-price, lower quality degrees of a lower value to students, particularly in terms of graduate employability," said Prof Wellings.

But a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "As part of the higher education framework we are considering a number of measures to increase access to higher education and maintain our sector's world class status.

"Ahead of its publication any discussion of the proposals it will contain are purely speculative."

Saving

As well as the framework setting out future priorities, the government is to begin a separate review of student fees in the autumn - trying to reconcile the demands for more funding from the universities with the unpopularity of raising tuition fees.

At present, universities are not allowed to raise tuition fees above the fixed cap - and the fees review will have to decide whether this upper limit should be raised or removed altogether.

The proposal for a no-fee degree would provide another option - saving the government the expense of financial support, while allowing students and their families to avoid fees and student debt.

This would depend on students having families that are able and willing to support them.

For parents, it would mean that in financial terms, sending a child to university would be similar to their being in the sixth form at school or college, with the family typically providing accommodation but with no fees for tuition.

There have been warnings that students from poorer families are more debt averse and this could have the appeal of a simple system, with no debts attached.

But it is also likely to raise concerns about inequalities in the student funding system - with different students facing different levels of debts.

There is growing pressure on the university system - and increasingly urgent calls for more funding.

The downturn in the jobs market has sparked a surge of applications for university, with warnings that this is going to create a demand that cannot be met.

Universities have been calling for extra funding to provide more places, but the government faces its own pressures on public spending.



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