Lord Browne, the ex BP boss once said to be Prime Minister Tony Blair’s favourite captain of industry, returned to the public spotlight today – just two years after dramatically quitting as head of the oil giant after admitting lying to a court.
He accepted the high profile job of chairman of the government inquiry into university tuition fees.
Lord Browne’s appointment was widely welcomed today although there was flak for ministers who were accused of a “conspiracy” to put higher fees on the back burner until after the election.
Lord Browne of Madingley was appointed by Business Secretary Peter Mandelson two years after admitting lying in court in an attempt to block revelations about his private life. He said at the time it was “a matter of great regret” that he lied over how he had first met his partner of four years, Jeff Chevalier.
Yesterday he was appointed as head of a seven-man panel to carry out the review.
The team also includes former student leader Rajay Naik, now a board member of the Big Lottery Fund.
The team were immediately put under pressure to agree an increase in fees. A survey of vice-chancellors indicated they would – on average – like to see them doubled from the present level of £3,225 a year to around £7,000.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group – which represents twenty of the top rated research institutions in the UK, said: “An increase in tuition fees is clearly one of the most effective options but we want to be sure about the impact of any changes to fee levels on students before advocating one particular option.”
Students warned of the danger it would just rubber-stamp the introduction of higher fees.
“There is a real danger 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 Wes Streeting, president on the National Union of Students.
In his statement announcing the review, Lord Mandelson made it clear it would “consider the balance of contributions from all those who benefit from the higher education system”.
However, he made it clear that the introduction of top-up fees had brought an extra £1.3 billion worth of funding per year to universities. “Over this time, the number of students attending university has continued to rise, as has the number coming from lower-income backgrounds,” he added.
Yesterday’s review was set up after terms were agreed between Lord Mandelson and Conservative higher education spokesman David Willetts.
However, Stephen Williams, for the Liberal Democrats, 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.
“Mandelson has shown he will do whatever it takes to shut out any debate on the future of tuition fees, either in Parliament or the country.”