Universities 'must make guarantees' to justify fees rise

Universities should face financial sanctions if they fail to deliver minimum class sizes and lecturer contact time to students, a leading vice-chancellor said yesterday.

Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, said students would expect a minimum guarantee on these issues if the cap on top-up fees of £3,225 a year is lifted.

Professor Wellings, chairman of the 1994 group of vice-chancellors, which represents most redbrick universities, was giving evidence to the government inquiry into student finance headed by former BP boss Lord Browne.

His groups wants universities to be allowed to charged higher fees but does not back the free-for-all on fees advocated by the more elite Russell Group.

“Those universities who put their fees up should be very clear about minimum expectations of students on class sizes and contact time [with lecturers] and on expectations on feedback and assessment,” Professor Wellings added.

He warned that universities who failed to meet their guarantees should have their failure drawn to the attention of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the body responsible for financing universities. It could impose financial sanctions on them. “We have to make sure what’s in the jar is what’s on the table,” he said.

A spokesman for the group said later: “Institutions that fail to deliver on that quality should not be funded for that quality.”

He added that the relationship between universities and students’ expectations would have to be “much more formal than it has been in the past”.

Graham Wise, for the National Union of Students, added that universities should make clear to potential students what their expectations should be in terms of the amount of contact time they had with lecturers for each course.

Professor Wellings also urged universities to develop closer links with primary schools to convince young children they could aspire to higher education.

He echoed the findings of a report by the Office for Fair Access, the Government’s admissions watchdog, earlier this week that it was too late to leave it until youngsters were 14 – by which time they could have decided on GCSE subject options which would make it harder to get into more selective universities.

He told of one university which had invited nine-year-olds in to do a photography course.

“It’s not just about them making a T-shirt but doing interesting courses,” he said.

At the beginning of yesterday’s hearing Lord Browne made it clear his review group had yet to make its mind up over whether student fees should be increased.

“We have been – and will continue to be – independent in our approach, relying on evidence in reaching our conclusions and have not, contrary to what you may have read in the newspapers, yet reached any conclusions,” he added.

Meanwhile, the new Universities Minister David Willetts warned that “generations of young people” had been let down by taking vocational qualifications which were not valued by employers.

In a speech at Birmingham University, he said the lack of value accorded to high quality technical training was “one of our economy’s great weaknesses”.