Sir Keith Burnett says £9,000 university tuition fees are 'a disaster financially and unsustainable'

The vice-chancellor of Sheffield University (above) says family and friends have told him that tuition fee debt affects people's chances of getting a mortgage

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There is at least one voice in the wilderness among vice-chancellors calling for tuition fees to be scrapped altogether. He is Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, who argues that the present system of fees of up to £9,000 a year is "a disaster financially and unsustainable".

"It is bad for the country and bad for the students," he says. "It's defended on the grounds that it doesn't discourage people from going to university. That may be true, but what I'm hearing from family and friends is that the tuition fee debt is affecting people's chances of getting a mortgage."

Sir Keith's university is one of the 24 in the Russell Group, whose members are amongst the most sought after in the country. He admits he may be a lone voice amongst vice-chancellors who are at odds with him over his stance.

Universities UK, the body which represents vice-chancellors, for instance, is sharply critical of Labour's pledge to reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year, fearing an incoming government will not make up the decrease in revenue from fees to universities. Other university vice-chancellors in the Russell Group, including Oxford, have called for fees to rise. Its vice-chancellor, Andrew Hamilton, has pointed out it costs the university £16,000 per student.

Sir Keith shares the concerns over the impact of a cut in fees but argues that the cost of the present scheme to the taxpayer will be as great as the system it replaced, as unpaid debts could total between 40 and 50 per cent. He believes that the UK could soon be going down the same road as the US "where student debt is approaching credit card debt".

He adds: "Our students would like to have reduced fees but they are worried about course closures and the like down the line." Sir Keith says that the best way forward for the system would be to set up an independent review after the election. Ed Miliband is used to getting criticism because his plans are too radical and unworkable. Sir Keith's comments are a reminder that there is an alternative point of view.