Universities Threaten to Go Private in Top-Up Fees Row; Higher Education Faces Crisis as Government Stalls on Funding Policy

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SOME of Britain's best universities are threatening to join the private education sector if the Government refuses to allow them to charge hefty top-up fees to state students, it was claimed today.

The threat follows reports that Education Secretary Charles Clarke may put a limit on the level of top-up fees to spare students from bills totalling thousands of pounds.

He is said to be delaying an announcement of new funding arrangements for universities, originally due next month, to reconsider plans to allow top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, to charge as much as pound sterling15,000 a year in some cases.

The most elite universities argue that they need to levy extra fees to afford the best staff and facilities and to compete successfully against the best in the world.

Some officials in the Russell Group - a banding of the 18 best universities in Britain - say they could leave the state-funded sector altogether if Mr Clarke vetoes the proposals.

University funding has caused a series of rows within the Government and was one of the issues which caused Estelle Morris, who resigned last week as Education Secretary, to lose confidence in herself.

Students currently pay a maximum of pound sterling1,100, with those from low-income households paying nothing. If colleges could charge pound sterling15,000, some students would leave higher education with debts of about pound sterling60,000.

However, universities say they are faced with a pound sterling10 billion annual shortfall of money because existing fees pay only a fraction of the cost of expanding higher education.

Ms Morris had come under heavy pressure from 10 Downing Street to allow top-up fees, on a sliding scale depending on family income. But some ministers fear that middleclass families would be hard hit while poorer students would be deterred from applying to centres of excellence.

While No 10 favoured plans put forward by the universities themselves for scholarship schemes to cut the cost to bright students, Education Department officials wanted to "tax" universities charging top-up fees to provide a national fund for the poor. …


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