Universities warn of closures if Blair's top-up fee proposals fail

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The Independent Online

Universities face closure if the Government fails to win MPs' support for its controversial top-up fee legislation, vice-chancellors warn today.

A survey of England's 89 universities by The Independent brought warnings from vice-chancellors that up to a dozen will have to merge or close because of an ensuing cash crisis if MPs defeat the Bill on Tuesday. The warning came as the Cabinet was given a downbeat assessment of the Government's chances of success in the vote by Hilary Armstrong, Labour's Chief Whip.

With the number of Labour rebels remaining firm at 100, ministers need to win round about 25 of them to avoid a humiliating defeat.

The vice-chancellors said the worst hit would be universities in the inner cities, where they compete for students with nearby rival institutions. Vice-chancellors say they would be forced to seek another institution to merge with to avoid closing down. Others will be forced to get rid of courses in subjects such as science and engineering, which are expensive to run but attract fewer candidates.

The survey also revealed that several members of the Russell Group - representing the 19 top research institutions - will cut domestic recruitment and take in more international students on full-cost fees. One vice-chancellor warned that members of the group would also pull out of the state university system and go private if they were refused permission by MPs to levy higher fees.

The stark warnings come because the Government has made it clear there is no "plan B" if its legislation, which would allow universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006, fails. Professor Michael Sterling, the chairman of the Russell Group and the vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "The situation will be extremely serious and will lead to a second-class higher education system in the UK and second-rate graduates."

Of the 34 universities prepared to give information about fees, 21 said they would charge the full £3,000 for all courses and 12 said they would charge it for some courses.

* The Institute of Physics announced yesterday it would offer bursaries of £1,000 to students from poor backgrounds who study the subject from 2006. The move is to counteract recruitment difficulties to courses and has been welcomed by ministers.