Let Colleges Fix Their Own Fees; If the Government Can't Make Up Its Mind over Charges for Higher Education It Should Set the Universities Free

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Byline: SIMON JENKINS

WHAT does it take to get a London student on to the streets these days?

Peace, war, Iraq, famine, the conquest of poverty? No.

Those days are over. The one cause that has students screaming and screwing up the London traffic is pay.

Their pay.

I agree with yesterday's student demonstration in one important respect. The Government should not introduce top-up fees at British universities. But my problem is only with the subject of that verb. It is universities who should introduce top-up fees and should decide their size.

Yesterday's proclaimed climbdown by Tony Blair on "thousands of pounds of upfront fees" was classic spin. Fees could still be higher but not paid upfront, as the Education Secretary Charles Clarke kindly translated it last night. Mr Blair's most significant remark was that the present student finance system is "not an option". We still await his option. The fact is that Labour is so scared of the middle classes - and the working classes - that it dare not decide. If so, leave it to the universities. Let them charge. They are still independent of government, just.

Finding ways of getting British people to part with their money to improve public institutions seems beyond the wit of politics. Rather than pay higher taxes or charges, the public is assumed to prefer rotten hospitals, rotten schools, rotten museums, rotten prisons and increasingly rotten universities.

There is no way that standards in all these institutions can be maintained entirely from general taxation. Yet as we march down the merry road to decay, we want to cry, "It was free!"

LONDON's higher education is in a mess. Lecturers are paid less than Tube drivers. In the past 15 years, spending per student has halved and staff/student ratios have doubled. Colleges are increasingly offering invisible teaching of poor quality. In some non-science subjects, students are often lucky to get more than two or three classes a week, six months in a year.

Anyone roaming the campuses of London's 35 universities and colleges sees crammed corridors, packed libraries, bursting cafeterias general slumdom. The working year is distorted by excessive exams and academic time off for research.

All colleges seem to be running at a loss. Last month, London's premier university, UCL, narrowly avoided having to merge with Imperial to rescue itself from bankruptcy.

Many institutions survive only by sucking in thousands of overseas students, for whom they are allowed to charge full fees of pound sterling10-15,000 a year. At the London School of Economics, the student body is now two-thirds overseas and the School is virtually private. London universities are educating the world, but are excluding Londoners because they are not allowed to charge them fees, and Londoners are not allowed to pay them. Some parents can only find a place of their choice by pretending to be foreign.

Someone has to pay for universities. The general taxpayer has shown over 10 years that enough is enough. …