Universities threaten pounds 300 levy on freshers

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Universities are threatening to charge freshers pounds 300 per head next year unless government cuts are reversed.

Vice-chancellors will decide on Friday whether to impose the one-off levy on new students from September 1997. They may also decide to boycott inspections of their teaching quality.

The fee, which would not be charged to students on full grants, could affect 140,000 students and would raise up to pounds 50m. Universities face cuts of 9.4 per cent over three years, with capital spending reduced by 50 per cent. They say they will take action unless this year's budget eases their plight.

More than 100 vice-chancellors will discuss the plan, along with a further measure which could mean a boycott of quality inspections in universities. This second plan could lead to financial sanctions by government funding agencies.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), said yesterday that action would only be taken with reluctance. "What is the point of delivering second class tuition to students? Universities need adequate funding to maintain quality," she said.

Vice-chancellors have been increasingly vocal in their protests against spending restrictions. The proportion of 18 year-olds going to university has risen in the past decade from one in five to almost one in three, but the higher education budget has failed to keep pace.

Other proposals which will be tabled at Friday's meeting will include the introduction of top-up fees which would vary from university to university. Some vice-chancellors have also threatened to cut student numbers, but this has been rejected because it would lead to funding being reduced even further.

The CVCP believes the only long-term solution to the universities' funding problems would be a system by which all students repaid a proportion of their fees after graduation.

Such a system has already been introduced in Australia and does not appear to have put off potential students. However, despite continued political pressure for such a move neither of the main political parties has so far been prepared to make a commitment to it.

Last year the National Union of Students (NUS) failed to persuade its members to press for a system like the Australian one, which could mean much more generous funding for universities. It will debate the issue again at its conference this spring.

However, a number of student groups are opposed. Yesterday they launched a Campaign for Free Education, whose members will stand for executive positions in NUS. Among its members is Clive Lewis, the union's vice-president for education. "Students are already living in desperate hardship. Tuition fees amount to a tax on education," he said.