Two Labour former education secretaries have weighed in against massive rises in student fees after some vice-chancellors said they wanted to increase charges to up to £20,000 a year. David Blunkett, who was in charge when Labour introduced tuition fees after the 1997 election, will address a students' lobby of Parliament today to condemn the calls for even higher fees.
"It would at this time of global financial downturn be unacceptable to lift the cap and have a free-for-all across universities," Mr Blunkett said. "The main task must be to avoid fully fledged 'top-up' fees which would lift constraints and result in an unregulated market."
Charles Clarke, the education secretary who steered through the top-up fees legislation, said on Radio 4's Today programme that he could "understand" the doubts of those worried about the wisdom of raising fees at a time of economic recession.
A report for Universities UK, the body which represents vice-chancellors, revealed that they wanted [on average] fees to more than double from their present ceiling of £3,145 a year to £6,500. A separate BBC survey of vice-chancellors, with anonymity for those who participated, showed the range of fees they wanted to be between £4,000 and £20,000 a year. In the past, the lone voice pressing the case for full-cost fees of £20,000 a year for home students has been Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College London.
Malcolm Grant, chairman of the Russell group, which represents 20 of the top higher-education research establishments including Oxford and Cambridge, and vice-chancellor of University College London, said that the Government should consider the case for lifting the cap on fees. But later, he added that he did not personally favour this solution and described anyone who supported fees of £20,000 a year as "barking mad".
Ministers had to consider the impact of any fees rise on recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, he said. Some vice-chancellors yesterday voiced outright opposition to a fees rise. Professor Peter Scott, of Kingston University, said: "I have always opposed – and will continue to oppose – charging undergraduate student fees. Hundreds of thousands of graduates would have been denied opportunities to benefit from higher education if we had charged fees in the past, and the country would be the poorer for it."
But, he added: "I am realistic enough to recognise that I am in a small minority among vice-chancellors. So, if the cap has to be raised, it shouldn't be more than £5,000."
David Lammy, the Higher Education minister, said an independent government review of fees would be established in the summer. It is likely that a final decision will be put off until after the next general election.
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