Top-up fees - give us our freedom

Why are the university bosses revolting about a bill to be debated today? Martin Harris explains

When the Government's Teaching and Higher Education Bill gets its first proper airing in the House of Lords this afternoon you can expect a stormy debate.

What's at stake is the issue of university autonomy. In the world of higher education we feel a nagging sense of deja vu; this is the third time in under a decade that there has been an attempt to undermine our independence.

University autonomy isn't some abstract issue of concern only to those living in some long-gone era. We're talking about protecting a sensible and workable balance of power between government and universities; the sort of healthy checks and balances that ensure accountability, yet avoid stifling centralisation.

Universities want to get on with the job of providing students with the education they demand and deserve. We must be flexible and responsive to our students' needs. Indeed the setting for this latest battle is the Bill which introduces new arrangements for student funding, including the means-tested contribution of up to pounds 1,000 to tuition fees. Students will become increasingly discerning consumers - and rightly so.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals backs this fee and also supports measures built into the Bill to ensure the national pounds 1,000 rate cannot be casually raised by a cash-strapped government. Any increase above the rate of inflation of the pounds 1,000 fee would have to be scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament.

The Secretary of State is also concerned that individual universities will opt to charge so-called top-up fees - though no university now has plans to do so. So the Bill goes on to include wide-ranging powers which significantly extend the Secretary of State's ability to attach conditions to the funding of universities. These are the measures that will greatly disturb Peers today and which the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals want stripped out of the Bill. This is where the issue of university independence comes in.

These extra measures are unnecessary and excessive. The catch-all nature of the Bill's clauses goes far beyond what is required to rule out top- up fees. It could be used to proscribe long-established charges for, say, geology field trips or studio fees for arts courses.

The new reserve powers are also dangerous, threatening the hard-won safeguards secured by the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 and the Education Reform Act four years earlier. These safeguards provide the essential balance in the relationship between the Government, the funding councils - which distribute public funding to universities - and the universities themselves. This arm's length approach achieves stringent accountability without over-centralisation.

One such safeguard from the 1992 Act prevents a Secretary of State imposing requirements on the funding councils relating to an individual institution or to essentially academic matters. But the new Bill would mean it would now be technically possible for the Secretary of State, using the reserve powers, to intervene in respect of fees charged at a particular institution for a particular course.

It is this power to become involved in an individual institution which causes alarm and breaches the arm's length principle. Six years ago Baroness Blackstone, now Minister for Higher Education, led the attack on a clause in the then Further and Higher Education Bill granting power to intervene in specific institutions. She too cited an earlier battle. "Noble Lords no doubt will remember that when a similar power was proposed in the Education Reform Bill, it was amended... when fears were expressed that it could be used for political purposes and could threaten academic freedom." No doubt they did remember - and will also remember this afternoon. An additional concern is that the new Bill means the funding council will no longer have to consult representative bodies or individual institutions before imposing conditions.

All sounds like an over-reaction? The present government would not meddle so, I'm sure; it has neither the time nor inclination. But, as was pointed out in the debate six years ago, governments do not enjoy eternal life. Another Peer wondered what some Secretaries of State would have done with their powers in the case of such courses as peace studies; that was back in 1991, of course.

This argument isn't about precious academic sensibilities or worse, a shirking of accountability. The existing law strikes the right balance between the independence of universities and the powers required by the Secretary of State and funding councils in respect of public funds.

Nor is this argument, primarily, about the loose drafting of a clause which means a whole raft of fees would be caught up in the new legislation - though this is indeed another concern leading to a potential minefield of bureaucracy. As worded, the Bill could be used to prevent universities from levying reasonable cost-related charges, as they do now. The Bill may even encompass graduation and examination charges. This is government threatening to engage in the micro-management of universities or at least having the power to do so.

This argument is about a fundamental principle. Democracies are founded upon and protected by the existence of free-standing institutions.

Universities are facing a funding crisis - that's after all what prompted the Dearing report and this whole debate. Over half the sector will be in the red by the turn of the century if action isn't taken, it is estimated. That's why we need and are supporting the new funding package proposed by the Bill and why we'll also be looking for a guarantee that money raised by tuition fees goes into higher education as additional cash. We look confidently to the Government to meet our concerns. What a waste if attention is distracted from this crucial issue by a clause which uses a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

The writer is chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and vice chancellor of Manchester University.

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