A far-reaching review of higher education was ordered last night as universities threatened to charge top-up fees if action was not taken to defuse the present funding crisis.
But vice-chancellors, who are planning a levy of pounds 300 on each new student from next year, will have to wait until after the next general election to know the outcome of the inquiry: the new committee will not report until summer 1997.
Gillian Shephard, the education secretary, last night called in Sir Ron Dearing, the man who slimmed down the National Curriculum in the face of teachers' protests about escalating workloads, to try to sort out the universities' problems.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Mrs Shephard said Sir Ron would head a committee of investigation into the shape, structure, size and funding of higher education should develop over the next 20 years, including how students should be funded. He will be supplied with submissions already given to a higher education review launched last year by the Department for Education and Employment.
She drew parallels with the Robbins Report which led to big university expansion in the 1960s saying it was now time for another similar review.
"The Robbins Report provided a landmark for higher education policy that has stood the test of time well. But it is time to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the challenges facing higher education in the UK as we approach the 21st century," she said.
While the proportion of 18-year-olds going to university has risen from one in five to almost one in three in the past decade, funding per student has dropped by 28 per cent. Last November's budget revealed that funding for buildings and equipment would be cut by 30 per cent in the next financial year and by 50 per cent over three years.
The cuts have led to growing protests by vice-chancellors, who have threatened to boycott government inspections of teaching quality as well as to charge a levy or a top-up fee which students would have to pay before starting courses.
They want a system like Australia's, under which graduates repay a proportion of their fees once they are earning more than a nationally agreed salary threshold. Both the main opposition parties are moving towards the same position.
Tomorrow morning the Liberal Democrats will unveil their new policy on higher education, calling for a "learning bank" with which anyone could open an account - an idea floated by the National Commission on Education in 1993. Under their plans, all students in both further and higher education would repay a portion of both their fees and maintenance.
Last night the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, Don Foster, welcomed the announcement but added that universities needed action before the next election.
"It seems to me Sir Ron is brought in every time the Conservatives need one of their messes sorting out," he said.
Labour will publish its own plans for higher education in the next few months, but will take a close interest in Sir Ron's inquiry. Mrs Shephard took the unusual step of allowing David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, to make suggestions on the framework for the review. The party is keen to draw parallels with Robbins, which was commissioned by a Conservative government but implemented by a Labour one.
Last night Mr Blunkett said there must be further expansion of the university system and promised an "equitable and progressive" funding system under Labour.
Sir Ron said he could not see any possibility of producing an interim report. "It is an immense task that we have got. Robbins had over two years to do the job and our terms of reference are at least as wide and probably wider. We have got 15 months or may be 16," he said.
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