Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

Review of student fees launched

Student funding
The review will decide how much students will have to pay

A review of how much students in England pay for university has been launched by ministers, to be chaired by former BP chief, Lord Browne.

The review has been told it must take into account the aim of widening participation in university and the need to simplify support for students.

The findings of the review will not be published before the general election.

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson promised to consult "all who would be affected by any changes".

The UCU lecturers' union said that political parties must still declare their positions on how much students should pay and how loans should be funded.

"Failure to do so will deny the general public a voice on the debate on the future of university funding," said general secretary, Sally Hunt.

'Balance of contributions'

Lord Mandelson said students would be involved in discussions on funding - and the review would "examine the balance of contributions to universities by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers".

England: £3,225 p.a.
N. Ireland: £3,225 p.a.
Scotland: free to Scots, £1,775 to other UK
Wales: £1,285 to the Welsh, £3,225 to other UK
Students from elsewhere in the EU pay the same as those locally
Those from outside the EU pay whatever the university charges

This emphasis on a range of sources for funding suggests that the review will look beyond simply raising fees above the £3,225 per year paid by students in England.

This could mean that tuition fees, worth £1.3bn to universities, might be supplemented by other sources of income, such as contributions from business.

The year-long review will consider funding for both full-time and part-time students and will be intended to reflect the growing variety of routes into higher education.

Although much attention has been paid to the level of tuition fees, the review will look at broader issues of funding, such as the way student loans are subsidised and the awarding of bursaries.

There will also be an examination of whether there should be a more diverse funding and charging system to reflect the more flexible ways that people are studying.

This will be a cross-party review and the Conservatives' universities spokesman, David Willetts, said this was "the right way to address this critical issue".

But the Liberal Democrat university spokesman, Stephen Williams said: "This review is nothing but a conspiracy between Labour and the Tories designed to keep plans to hike up tuition fees off the agenda until after the general election."

Lord Browne said the task of the review would be to "make recommendations to secure the vitality of higher education in this country while ensuring that finance does not become a barrier to those who have the ability and motivation for further study".

Lord Browne, a former BP chief executive, will lead the review, with six other members - Sir Michael Barber, Diane Coyle, David Eastwood, Julia King, Rajay Naik and Peter Sands.

Sir Michael was head of former prime minister Tony Blair's delivery unity; Diane Coyle is a member of the Competition Commission and BBC Trustee; David Eastwood is vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham; Julia King is vice-chancellor of Aston University; Rajay Naik is on the board of the Big Lottery Fund and Peter Sands is chief executive of Standard Chartered bank.

'Stitch up'

There have been warnings from students that this review must not be a "stitch up".

The National Union of Students has carried out a survey which it says shows there is little public sympathy for an increase in tuition fees.

Student leaders say there should not be an assumption that higher fees are inevitable.

"There is a real danger that this review will pave the way for higher fees and a market in prices that would see poorer students priced out of more prestigious universities and other students and universities consigned to the 'bargain basement'," said NUS president, Wes Streeting.

"This would be a disaster for UK higher education and must not be allowed to happen."

Wendy Piatt, head of the Russell Group of leading universities, said that the current levels of funding were not adequate if universities wanted to remain internationally competitive.

"As universities are facing severe economic conditions and ferocious global competition it is clear that the status quo is not viable," she said.

As such she argued that options to increase funding, such as raising fees, had to be considered.

Paul Wellings, chair of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities, called for the review to abide by two principles - to ensure that the cost does not stop people from attending university and the need to improve the student experience.

"Firstly, a guarantee that a targeted and robust student support system is in place that ensures that no student is unable to attend university because of cost. Higher education should continue to be free at the point of delivery with repayments contingent on income after graduation.

"Secondly, a commitment from universities to continue to enhance the student experience on offer to all students."

However the students belonging to the 1994 Group universities issued their own separate response.

"The review must be transparent and consult with all affected parties. It should explore progressive alternatives to variable tuition fees and must address the problems caused for students by the disastrous bursaries system that is currently in place," Michael Payne, chair of Unions 94.

The Million+ group of new universities said that "students and graduates will want assurances that they will not be asked to pay more simply to make-up for cuts in public funding".

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