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University fees review panel makes first call for evidence

A review of university fees and funding will hold public hearings in the new year, it was announced yesterday.

The panel conducting the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, led by Lord Browne of Madingley, is calling for evidence so that it can gather a wide range of perspectives on the current system of funding and student finance.

The seven-strong panel, which includes university vice-chancellors, will look in particular at the impact of the introduction of variable tuition fees and changes to student finance in 2006.

Key questions include whether the £3,000-a-year top-up fees have improved the quality of university teaching. Labour and Conservative MPs have said students should be entitled to better services if they pay more.

Lord Browne's panel will also consider which of the funding reforms have worked and which have not. The panel made its first call for evidence yesterday, taking as its main themes participation rates, the quality of the higher education system and affordability for students and the state.

University vice-chancellors are likely to make the case for a major increase in the present top-up fee ceiling of £3,245 a year. Earlier this year, a poll of vice-chancellors revealed that, on average, they want the top-up figure doubled to £6,500.

The National Union of Students and lecturers' leaders will ask the panel to examine alternatives to top-up fees, warning that a price increase could deter would-be students from poorer homes from applying, particularly while jobs are scarce.

Announcing the call for evidence yesterday, Lord Browne, the former boss of BP, said: "We will invite selected experts and representatives of different interests to give oral evidence at public hearings that will be held towards the end of January."

The first call for evidence will close on 31 January with a further call in "early 2010". The review will make its recommendations to the Government next summer, after the election.