Vice-chancellor warns: top-up fees must double

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The Independent Online

Student fees will have to rise to £7,500 a year to maintain standards in higher education, a leading university vice-chancellor warns today.

The claim by Professor Michael Farthing, the vice-chancellor of Sussex University, comes as lecturers take part in a one-day strike over job cuts.

Sussex is one of 14 colleges and universities where lectures will be called off as a result of a strike by members of the University and College Union (UCU). The university is threatening to make 107 staff redundant and lecturers are considering boycotting the marking of students' exams this summer if the dispute is not settled.

Professor Farthing, whose budget has been reduced by 1 per cent this year, said he would like to see the government review of student finance – which is due to report later this year – recommend a substantial increase in the current cap on top-up fees of £3,240 a year.

"This is very much a personal view," he said, "but if the fees cap went up to £5,000 a year it would just about keep us where we are or get us back to where we were a couple of years ago in terms of funding.

"That won't solve the problem and – if there is to continue to be a cap – I would have thought that if we're going to maintain the unit of resource [in terms of funding per student] we're probably looking at a cap of between £7,000 and £7,500."

Sources close to the review said evidence had already been presented which suggested the cap should rise to between £5,000 and £7,000. Only the Liberal Democrats have made their policy on top-up fees clear during the election campaign – they will phase them out within six years. Labour and the Conservatives have said they will await the outcome of the inquiry.

The National Union of Students has revealed that 200 Labour candidates have signed a pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees – making it likely Labour will find it difficult to back a substantial rise. Only 13 Conservative candidates signed the pledge, while 400 Liberal Democrats did so.

A survey by UCU has also found that 6,863 jobs are at risk as a result of this year's £500m cut in higher education budgets.

"There isn't a day now when I don't get notification of another potential set of redundancies. It's such a waste of employees' talents," said Sally Hunt, the general secretary of UCU. She added that she expects there to be further calls for industrial action as the cuts bite even deeper.

Today's action will also hit King's College London and Westminster University as well as 11 further education colleges in London.

Paul Cecil, the UCU branch secretary at Sussex University, added: "For most people, this will be the first time they have ever faced redundancy. We've got colleagues who are facing redundancy after 20 years of service – leading academics essentially very knowledgeable in their field."

The cuts have coincided with an unprecedented increase in the number of young people opting for university. Despite Labour and the Conservatives pledging an extra 10,000 places, around 200,000 applicants are likely to miss out this year.