Colleges back £6,000 a year tuition fees

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Vice-Chancellors of the top 20 research universities in Britain took the first step on Friday towards a sharp increase in tuition fees for middle-class students.

Vice-Chancellors of the top 20 research universities in Britain took the first step on Friday towards a sharp increase in tuition fees for middle-class students.

Members of the Russell Group of universities, meeting at Warwick University, agreed to commission an investigation into top-up fees, which could lead to some students paying up to £6,000 a year fortuition instead of the present fee of £1,025.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said last week that he expected a national debate about fees to take place if Labour won the next election. He said he personally opposed top-up fees because they would deter poorer students, but added: "I will not be secretary of state for ever."

Under existing legislation, universities would lose government funding if they charged top-up fees.

Yesterday's meeting decided to ask a group of four economists to look at future funding options for universities. These include freedom for universities to charge whatever fees they choose and a voucher scheme under which all students are given, say, £3,000 to spend at the university of their choice, provided they are prepared to pay any extra fees.

Under a scheme favoured by one of the economists on the commission, all but the poorest students would pay higher fees than at present but everyone would receive loans for living costs and fees, repayable after they graduated. The size of the repayments would be tied to graduates' incomes.

Top-up or "flexible" fees would enable leading universities to charge much more for tuition than institutions that struggle to fill their places.

Vice-chancellors emphasised, however, that any new system would have to ensure that students were not prevented from going to university because of their background.

Professor Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, whose paper prompted yesterday's decision, said: "I am very pleased. There is recognition in the group about the vital importance to our best universities of being able to compete with the best in the world, including the fabulously wealthy American universities."

He argued that existing arrangements had failed to ensure students from poorer backgrounds had the same chance of higher education as their middle-class counterparts. His proposal that universities should be able to charge the fees they chose with scholarships for poorer students would be more effective, he claimed.

"We have now admitted that we must do something quite different to tackle the social class bias. A lot of the recent expansion in higher education has been taken up by people from higher socio-economic groups."

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