A big government announcement on the review of tuition fees has been postponed amid speculation that the Conservatives’ Higher Education spokesman David Willetts is at odds with the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson over the choice of chairman for the review and its terms of reference.
An announcement on both these issues was expected next week at the same time as publication of a “framework” report from government on the shape of higher education over the next 15 years. Now all a government spokesman will say is that the “framework” document will come out in the next few weeks and that details of the fees review will be published separately.
Willetts wants the review to take account of students’ experience at university, arguing that if students are going to be asked to pay higher fees – to the tune of £5000 or £7000 a year - they have the right to demand a high quality education. He is concerned about contact hours, class sizes and employability and believes that any inquiry into fees must look at whether students are satisfied with what they are getting.
If Mandelson and Willetts fail to reach agreement on the terms of the top-up fees review, this could have serious repercussions on British universities and mean that they are not able to lay their hands on the funds they need. That is because, although the review is being established before the general election, it will report afterwards. If the Tories win, and if there is no cross-party agreement, they will not be bound by the review’s recommendations.
It was Tony Blair’s government that promised the review back in 2001 when the new legislation sparked a backbench Labour revolt that almost brought down the government. The review was a concession that helped ministers assuage angry backbenchers who did not like the idea of students having to pay top-up fees. University vice chancellors have been waiting all year for that review to be announced.
There is a precedent for this. In 1997 there was cross-party agreement to the first review of higher education funding under the late Lord Dearing.
The former Tory Education Secretary Gillian Shepherd did a deal with her then Shadow David Blunkett and he was able to secure changes in the terms of reference. Dearing reported, recommending the introduction of a flat-rate tuition fee - and Labour acted on it.
Willetts refused to comment on his negotiations with Mandelson. “I have made it clear all along that we hope to be consulted and to go forward on a cross-party basis,” he said. “I don’t want to get into a commentary on the state our negotiations have reached.”
But he did say that he attached a lot of importance to students’ experience of university. “You couldn’t win the argument for higher fees unless you could show what was in it for students and their parents,” he said.
A number of names are being mooted for review chairman including Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, and Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of the media empire Pearson. Willetts would not say whom he favoured. “We’re being completely reasonable,” he said. I am not going around vetoing people willy nilly.”
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