opinion : LSE must rule out top-up fees

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The Independent Online
All eyes are on the London School of Economics. Will it set a precedent for the higher education sector by introducing top-up fees - a compulsory fee levied on individuals at the time of entry?

As a lay governor at the college, I am horrified by the prospect. Just when the Labour Party is determined to ensure equal opportunities for all our children in the statutory school sector, decision-makers in higher education are considering taking steps that will inevitably lead to elitism in the university sector.

Top-up fees are a bad idea. Despite the most sophisticated means-testing and promises of subsidy, top-up fees will stop many poor and middle-income students from applying. Ability to pay will decide who goes to the LSE. An institution that has been a crucible for radical ideas that have influenced left-wing policy is about to become the guinea-pig for radical, right-wing ideology. This is a momentous and mistaken move.

We know there is a funding crisis in higher education. The Government has encouraged a rapid growth in student numbers, but funding has not kept pace. This year's capital cut of 30 per cent has precipitated the crisis. Cuts in student maintenance have already taken their toll. Young people are not going to university because they can't afford to live on the discredited system of grants, loans and parental contribution.

We must also acknowledge that the British system of public subsidy to higher education needs reform. We spend more than any of our OECD competitors on each student in higher education - $15,060 dollars compared with $6,550 in Germany and $11,850 in Japan - but we spend less than them on nursery education. We need to reassess our education priorities. That is why the Dearing Inquiry is so important. We must consider the methods of teaching in higher education, the balance between research and teaching, the balance between part-time and full-time education and between state subsidy and student contribution.

But some at the LSE refuse to await the conclusions of that review. They want to jump the gun and be the first institution to charge undergraduates a fee. Going it alone is a sure way of ensuring a two-tier system in higher education with an Ivy league elite, and the rest catering for those who can't afford to pay.

Worse still, has the LSE really exhausted all the other options to balance next year's budget? Those in charge say that the LSE cannot afford to await the outcome of the Dearing review. Yet the anticipated income in the first year of pounds 1000 top-up fee is pounds 400,00. This is about 0.5 per cent of the LSE's budget of pounds 70m. Surely, other cuts are possible which may make life a bit more uncomfortable for those who work at the LSE but would not undermine equality of access.

Has the LSE already given up on its proud, historical tradition? It now targets students from abroad, not to maintain its cosmopolitan character, but because they pay more - half of its student body comes from non-EU countries.

And half of the undergraduates come from public schools, because the college makes no positive effort to recruit more widely.

This is an institution that does not have to bear the extra financial burden associated with scientific, medical or technology courses. It is an institution that does well in attracting a good research income. Yet it is so short of money it has to become the first to introduce top-up fees. This suggests that top-up fees are more about a reluctance to change than about a financial imperative. They are more about shifting the liability on to students than thinking about the resources, both financial and teaching, of the institution itself. Claims by some academics that changes will inevitably undermine quality are simply not believable.

At the end of last week's meeting of governors, top-up fees were neither ruled out nor ruled in. In my view we must not sell out on our past and we must rule them out. We should find alternative savings and join with the rest of the higher education world in sorting out a sensible, sustainable and affordable funding mechanism which ensures that equity and equality of access are central to our ethos.