'£6,000 fees' shock for universities

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The Independent Online

An Élite group of British universities could count on substantial student support even if it went ahead with controversial plans to charge extra fees, shows an exclusive survey by the Independent on Sunday.

An Élite group of British universities could count on substantial student support even if it went ahead with controversial plans to charge extra fees, shows an exclusive survey by the Independent on Sunday.

Four out of 10 students said they would be prepared to pay thousands more pounds for a place at a leading research university. Most said their parents would find the money.

But the findings surprised student leaders and reignited the debate about top-up fees. Earlier this year, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, had refused to rule out them out.

The universities say the extra charges are needed to compensate for cuts in funding. But a report by leading academics on Friday said introducing a free market in fees would force some less prestigious universities to close. Senior economists responding to the IoS survey said students are beginning to accept the principle that an elite education could command a premium price-tag. They said undergraduates accept loans and tuition fees. But union leaders said any attempt to impose them would fail.

The survey covered 450 students at 14 leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Warwick, Durham, King's College London, and Sheffield, all members of the Russell Group of leading research universities.

Earlier this year, the group published an economists' report proposing universities should charge up to £6,000 a year. Vice-chancellors are still considering the report, which used the case of Tyneside teenager Laura Spence to argue for the abolition of the £1,050 cap on fees.

Dr Nick Barr, reader in economics at the London School of Economics, and a leading expert on tuition fees, said students would accept fees if the right system of scholarships and student loans was in place.

"Students do not like to pay tuition fees, but when they came in they grumbled then they paid," he said. "They know they will benefit by going to a better university and they recognise they may need to pay for it."

But Tom Wilson, head of higher education at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, which represents lecturers in the "new" universities, said: "There is not much demand for top-up fees. The survey is interesting because it shows fewer than half of people, mainly from elite universities, would pay the top-up fee. It is the sort of statistic you need to argue against the fees."

Owain James, national president of the National Union of Students, said opposition to top-up fees would grow. "We do not want to see a higher education system run by the private principle that people's financial circumstances decide how they get on," he said.

Ministers have repeatedly insisted they have no plans to change the fees regime.

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