Top-up fees at Oxford could reach £10,000

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Rebel Labour MPs are set to redouble their opposition to university top-up fees after claims that Oxford should charge up to £10,000 a year.

Government plans for a more moderate increase of £3,000 a head have already proved controversial, provoking the biggest backbench revolt on domestic legislation since 1947.

Opponents of the Higher Education Bill believe that the £3,000 "cap" or limit will quickly be abolished, creating a market in university admissions in which top-flight British institutions would levy the same huge charges as wealthy American colleges.

Dr Ian Gibson, unofficial leader of the rebels, said yesterday that research by senior Oxford administrators confirmed their worst fears. "We always predicted that certain universities who want to establish themselves as an elite group would very quickly attempt to remove the cap," said Dr Gibson, chair of the select committee on science and technology. "That's why many Labour MPs resisted it."

Paul Flynn, another prominent opponent of tuition fees, said that the new study exaggerated Oxford's financial needs: "It should be treated with a degree of scepticism."

The Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies warned that up to £231m would be needed to bring Oxford University up to US standards. It called for elite universities to be allowed to charge uncapped fees in order to plug multimillion-pound budget deficits. Uncapped fees of around £10,000 would be charged to students from the richest 5 per cent of homes, while the poorest 20 per cent of students would receive a free education.

Twenty-five years ago Oxford enjoyed the same level of funding as the best private American universities. Today, Oxford spends only one-third of what Harvard and Princeton each spend on educating a single undergraduate. The cost of an Oxford education is an average of £18,600 a year compared to around £60,000 at Princeton and Harvard.

The researchers said that Britain could face a brain drain as its brightest sixthformers reject offers from Oxford and Cambridge to study at Ivy League institutions in America. The number of UK students studying in America has risen by 20 per cent to 5,000 in the past six years.