The move, which would probably be followed by other universities, would mark the first significant break in the tradition of free higher education for British undergraduates.
The London School of Economics, part of London University, is planning to levy a charge, expected to be pounds 500, on all home and European Community students from October next year. Other elite universities - which could include Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Imperial College, London - may follow suit unless the Government provides more money for higher education.
Attempts to charge fees would almost certainly create a huge political storm and further alienate the Government's traditional supporters in the middle classes, who benefit most from the present system of free tuition.
At present, the costs of undergraduate courses are met from two sources: fees which are paid on the student's behalf by local authorities, and central government grants to universities, paid through funding councils.
The LSE argues that this does not provide enough money to allow it to compete internationally for the top dons and researchers.
In a letter sent to academic staff last week, outlining the school's plans, Dr John Ashworth, the LSE's director, says that existing sources of income 'will not themselves be sufficient to secure for the future our status as the UK's leading social science university institution'.
He adds: 'Since it is clear that we cannot expect sufficient additional resourcing to come from public funds via our recurrent grant, the revenue will have to be generated from tuition fees.'
Several vice-chancellors have backed the principle of charging fees directly to students, to top up university income, but have been unwilling to become the first to confront the expected protests.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, was privately neutral about top-up fees when he was Secretary of State for Education, but regarded the issue as too explosive to give the go-ahead before the last election. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, could block the LSE's move by instructing the Higher Education Funding Council for England to deduct the revenue gained from its allocation. However, the LSE would still be better off because it would collect fees from its EC students, who by law must be charged no more than their British counterparts.
Tuition charges might deter young people from poorer homes from attending university, particularly since they already have to pay back an annual loan of pounds 525 ( pounds 605 in London) to help meet their living costs. The rest of the money for maintenance comes from an annual non-repayable grant of pounds 2,265 a year ( pounds 2,845 in London). However, this is means- tested and many better-off parents would baulk at paying fees on top of their children's maintenance.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is examining a scheme - discussed at an LSE conference attended by Mr Patten - whereby the state could pay the extra fees and recoup the money from a tax or National Insurance surcharge on graduates.
The LSE is considering a pounds 500 fee in 1994-5, the figure possibly doubling the following year. That increase would be used to help pay for scholarships for students from poorer backgrounds.
The chairman-elect of the vice- chancellors' committee, Kenneth Edwards, said: 'Over the last few decades universities have massively increased their efficiency without matching increases in funding. The universities are seeking to identify ways in which we might bring in additional funds.'
- More about:
- Higher Education
- Kenneth Clarke
- London School Of Economics And Political Science
- University Of The Arts London