Crewe's missile

Ivor Crewe, the new president of Universities UK, is certain that top-up fees make sense. He tells Lucy Hodges how they need to be sold
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The Independent Online

The relationship between the universities and the Government may be at an all-time low, but next week vice-chancellors and Alan Johnson, the higher-education minister, will try to paper over the cracks. This is crunch time for the Government's plan to give universities the freedom to charge students up to £3,000 a year, otherwise known as top-up fees. Labour MPs are in revolt and ministers are facing possible defeat in the Commons.

But the Government and Universities UK, which has its annual meeting

next week, are united in believing that the proposals are necessary.

"If they are defeated, it must mean that there will be no further growth in the system and quite possibly serious contraction," says Ivor Crewe, UUK's new president.

"That in turn means that a lot of parents who had taken it for granted that their son or daughter would go to university will find that they won't go, because there simply will not be the money to fund expansion, or indeed the current level of provision, at anything that could be regarded as an acceptable standard."

Back-of-the-envelope calculations by UUK show that giving universities the freedom to charge more will raise £1.5bn after three years, if all universities do it. This is bound to be an overestimate, because not all universities will charge £3,000 for every course. Nonetheless, it will yield a tidy sum. Some of that money will go into teaching; some into bursaries for disadvantaged students.

Everyone is agreed that the Government has done a poor job of selling its plans. The myth has grown up that students are going to have to find £3,000 on their first day at university to pay their fees under the proposed system. "That is emphatically not the case," says Professor Crewe. "They won't be paying. They will actually be paying less at the time that they go to university than they are at the moment."

Under the present scheme, students pay £1,125 a year unless they are exempt through low income. When and if the proposals go through, the middle classes will be paying no fee at all. But their offspring will have to pay back up to £3,000 a year, not on graduation, but only when their income rises above a certain threshold, currently £15,000.

The amount that students pay back, once they graduate and are earning £15,000, is not very much - at the lowest salary rate. "A graduate who starts off at £18,000 a year in London will be paying back about £5.30 a week, which is a couple of pints of beer," says Professor Crewe. "Now, most students could afford a couple of pints of beer when they were students, so they can afford to pay back a couple of pints after graduating." Put like that, the cost of a university education seems eminently affordable, particularly when you consider how much more people earn on average as a result. It is, of course, the small print of the proposals that matters. "When you look at the whole package, the stories of how students are going to end up with colossal amounts of debt are hugely exaggerated. The Government is right to try to alter what in my view are misconceptions," says Professor Crewe.

Beneath the unanimity, however, lie some deep fissures. One is between universities. Many new universities remain implacably opposed to top-up fees in common with the lecturers' union (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) and some Labour MPs. The divide between different groupings of universities is becoming more pronounced. The Russell Group, for example, which represents research-led universities, is about to appoint a chief executive and to come out of the shadows. How will UUK represent all universities when they are so clearly divided? Professor Crewe rejects the notion of a split. "In some ways this makes it easier for the UUK to do its job," he says. "It would be foolish to pretend that all 122 members of UUK have identical views on everything and absolutely identical interests. Members of the Russell Group, the 1994 Group and the Coalition of Modern Universities are all active in UUK. I have never detected factionalism on any of the decision-making or policy-making bodies."

The other big gulf is between the universities and the Government. Even though the two are making common cause over charging more, they are deeply divided over many issues. That divide erupted in earnest after publication of the White Paper on higher education earlier this year. Professor Crewe acknowledges that the sector opposed parts of that document. "The Government chose to draft the White Paper in a way that involved very little consultation of the universities," he says. "The result is that there are proposals in it that we think are mistaken. It will mean that the Government is less likely to achieve its objectives."

The fact is that the universities agree with ministers' objectives, he emphasises. They support widening participation, university expansion, the reform of student fees, additional investment in research and help with improving their relationship with business. But what really sticks in their throats is the assertion that it's in the national interest to concentrate research funding further. "The whole of the sector, including our best research universities, do not subscribe to the view that cutting the funding of departments that scored a four in the research-assessment exercise by 40 per cent, is in the national interest."

So, expect sparks to fly next week. Professor Crewe may say the Government is listening more to the universities now, but he believes it still isn't listening enough. In the last year, he counted 27 new funding initiatives. Each of those carries an administrative cost. And some of them, notably one called Aim Higher, are extraordinarily bureaucratic. "I don't think we have yet fully evaluated how successful it has been."