Ivor Crewe: A financially sustainable, socially fair way to close £9bn funding gap

Yes to top-up fees
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The Independent Online

MPs who want our universities to be academically excellent, internationally competitive, socially fair, economically useful and financially sustainable should vote for the Bill today. Its proposals are far preferable to the status quo or to the impractical and undeliverable alternatives suggested by opponents.

Universities worth the name need up-to-date laboratories, well-stocked libraries, highly trained and fairly paid teachers, improved staff-student ratios and properly maintained buildings. That cannot be done on the cheap. Year-on-year cuts from 1980 to 2000 have left a £9bn funding gap, a figure now accepted by all parties. The extra money needed must come either from the (mainly non-graduate) taxpayer or from those who benefit from higher education. It is right that taxpayers continue to fund the lion's share of university costs, but when more than 40 per cent attend university it is neither realistic nor justifiable to expect them to pay for it all.

Contrary to what sceptics have claimed, the Government's proposals will increase university funding substantially, by up to 30 per cent per UK undergraduate or £1.3bn annually. That will not close the funding gap but it allows a serious start to refurbishing laboratories, re-equipping classrooms, repairing buildings, reducing class sizes and reversing the academic brain drain. It will also provide for generous student bursaries, as the recent schemes announced by Cambridge, Imperial, Exeter and Surrey, among others, show.

The Bill offers a three-way better deal for students. First, the replacement of pay-as-you-learn by pay-when-you-earn is much fairer. No parent will have to write out a £1,150 cheque each year; and no student will be dependent on their parents to get a degree.

Second, the fee-repayment terms are generous. Graduates pay back according to their income - the threshold is raised from £10,000 to £15,000 - at a zero per cent real interest rate and with debt forgiveness after 25 years. Low-earning graduates and those taking a career break to raise a family do not pay until earnings rise again. The maximum additional fee "debt" for a three-year honours graduate is £5,400.

Thirdly, the Bill restores maintenance grants of £1,500 cash-in-hand for nearly a third of students. None will be worse off and many will be better off than at present; certainly no poor student has reason to be deterred by higher fees.

Democratic governments worldwide are struggling with the conundrum of how to fund a high-quality and socially fair university system for the 21st century without crippling the taxpayer. Today's landmark Bill provides progressive and practical answers. It is a landmark piece of social legislation which deserves support.

Professor Ivor Crewe is the president of Universities UK

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