Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University says that higher institutions should be able to set their own tuition fees / Getty Images


Universities should be left free to set their own charges for degree courses, according to one of the country’s leading university vice-chancellors.

Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and former head of the Government’s funding agency for higher education, said the “most rational” way of financing universities would be to scrap the current £9,000-a-year ceiling on fees and replace it with a “sliding scale” of fees decided upon by individual universities.

In an interview with the Times Higher Education magazine, he said: “The most rational way to deal with the financing of higher education is to have fees which are uncontrolled with no cap, but in return [universities] have to make adequate provision for looking after students who can’t afford to pay that fee.”

His call follows comments from Oxford University’s vice-chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton who argued that a university’s fees should be linked to what it offers – adding that the cost of an Oxford education was more than £16,000 per year per student.

Sir Howard made it clear he did not expect the current system of funding to change for at least three years – and that no party would address it in advance of the General Election next year.

Universities were given the go ahead to charge fees of up to £9,000 a year – provided they satisfied access watchdog the Office for Fair Access they were taking steps to cushion the blow for disadvantaged students – three years ago. In reality, most universities opted to charge the maximum for their courses.

“What we have at the moment we are stuck with until at least 2017, and that includes the £9,000 fee cap,” said Sir Howard.

His comments also follow a report by vice-chancellors warning universities will need more money in future if they are to cope with increasing numbers of students.

Universities Minister David Willetts has announced plans to lift the cap on student numbers that individual universities can take in – a move which, it has been forecast, could lead to the recruitment of 30,000 extra students.

The study, by Universities UK, the body which represents vice-chancellors of all UK universities, argued that the fee hike had not given many universities the extra cash they had expected. The income from student fees had largely just replaced cuts in Government funding, it added.