'A fifth of universities could close if fees rise'

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Top-up fees for students would lead to the closure of some universities, says a report from a leading group of higher education experts.

Top-up fees for students would lead to the closure of some universities, says a report from a leading group of higher education experts.

A union leader warned yesterday that as many as one in five universities could close if the cap on tuition fees is lifted to allow them to charge the full cost of courses.

Universities in the élite Russell group are looking at proposals to charge between £4,000 and £6,000 a year rather than the present £1,050 because they fear they will be unable to compete with competitors abroad unless they raise more funds.

Ministers said they are opposed to the proposals, which could mean élite universities charged higher fees than others. The Council for Industry and Higher Education says in a new paper that "differential fees would recognise the fact that there are different costs across the sector in providing different student experiences".

They would recognise that the market value of students varies from one institution and discipline to another. "This more market-driven approach would result in a splintering of the sector and the probable demise of certain institutions," it says. As a result, some places would lose their local university and institutions would be "typecast". Even bursaries for poor students might not provide equality of opportunity.

Tom Wilson, the head of universities at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, predicted that 20 per cent of universities, mostly former polytechnics, could close if top-up fees were introduced. "There is not the kind of demand to sustain the size of the current system. People would not pay. Even if it was the poorest 20 per cent of students who decided not to go to university, some would close."

Better-off students would have to pay up to £24,000 for a three-year course to help fund poorer ones. "I don't see that as remotely feasible. You would have to charge less and assume the state would pick up the tab for social equality. I don't think the state would do that."

The report says the Government should intervene less in universities, and give them block grants, allowing them to develop distinctive roles.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reported that its clearing process, which matches students to unfilled university places, is going well in England. There are 416,000 applicants, 1,000 fewer than last year, chasing 330,000 places.

* Schools and colleges that performed well but were not in our list yesterday included Woodford County High in Redbridge, average points per entry 7.9; Wilson's School in Sutton, 6.9, both of them grammars; Richmond School, a North Yorkshire comprehensive, 6.3; and King Edward VI College in Stourbridge, 6.1.