Universities press MPs to increase top-up fees for students to £5,000

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Britain's leading universities will be pressing MPs this autumn to increase the maximum top-up fee they can charge to about £5,000 a year.

Professor Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group, which represents the country's top 19 research universities, told The Independent: "I am grateful for the increase in resources from the Government's plans." In his first interview since his appointment, he added: "I would prefer a higher threshold."

Under the Government's proposals, universities would be allowed to charge up to £3,000 a year from 2006. A Bill paving the way for the charges will be presented to Parliament this autumn. Professor Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said that "around 80 per cent" of the country's universities would levy the fee of £3,000 "across all subjects".

He said: "The vast majority of universities will charge the maximum across all subjects. If you're charging a maximum of £3,000, there is not going to be a differentiation between universities.

"If you price yourself below that, it's drawing attention to the fact that you might have difficulty in attracting students. You mark yourself out as being a low-quality institution."

A level of about £5,000 a year would allow leading universities to charge a fee high enough for them to compete internationally, he argued. Professor Sterling's decision to give an interview on being appointed to the chairmanship of the group for three years marks a major departure in style for the Russell Group. It has been accused of being a secretive body with a low-profile approach to publicity. But it intends to appoint an executive director and adopt a higher profile when the legislation goes through Parliament.

Asked what would happen if rebel backbench Labour MPs defeated the top-up fee proposals, Professor Sterling replied: "Lots of universities will find themselves in deep financial problems. Each Russell Group vice-chancellor knows who the people are that need to be persuaded."

The Russell Group was also carrying out research into the impact of Tory proposals to abolish tuition fees altogether, he said. Hewarned that the plan would lead to many universities being forced to "downsize considerably or merge into other institutions".

He said: "What they're proposing to do is to reduce the participation rate. It is an option and a politician's choice. If it were to go down from 50 per cent [the target for the number of students going into higher education set by Labour for the end of the decade] to 30 per cent, it could be done without affecting some institutions. Were it to go down to 10 per cent, I would think that would be totally unacceptable to public opinion."

Professor Sterling said the Russell Group supported the main thrust of the Government's proposal but said that cuts in spending on higher education over the previous two decades meant the extra revenue generated would not be enough to restore spending levels to what they had been.