UK: Browne lifts tuition fee cap

In the biggest shake-up of higher education in 50 years, Lord (John) Browne has recommended removing the cap on tuition fees which could rise threefold from the current charge of £3,290 (US$5,200) a year. Liberal Democrats in the coalition government are threatening a revolt as they made an election pledge to phase out tuition fees.

The review led by Browne, the former head of BP, proposes that universities should be allowed to decide what they charge students. This could mean that some elite institutions such as Cambridge and Imperial College could charge up to £12,000 a year, but the expected average is £7,000.

Graduates will start repaying the cost of their degrees when they begin earning £21,000 a year, up from £15,000 under the current system. On average, graduates are likely to end up with £22,000 of debt.

Institutions that charge more than £6,000 will have to give a proportion of their income to the government. A university that charges £7,000 would get 94% of the fee, while one that charges £10,000 would receive 81%. Those charging the highest fees will have to demonstrate they are widening access for poorer students by offering scholarships or bursaries. Part-time students will now be eligible for loans to pay fees.

Browne proposes to cut the government teaching grant from £3.5 billion to £0.7 billion which could adversely affect arts and humanities courses.

Business Secretary Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister in charge of universities, was struggling earlier this week to stop his party members from making their first serious revolt of the coalition, which is led by the centre-right Conservatives.

Cable told the House of Commons that he endorsed the main thrust of Browne's proposals, so reneging on an election promise to phase out tuition fees. He said the pledge was no longer feasible in the current appalling financial situation that the coalition had inherited.

The Browne review also makes recommendations to reform the university system. Four existing higher education bodies - the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Quality Assurance Agency, Office for Fair Access and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - would be abolished and replaced by a single Higher Education Council.

The new body would be responsible for investing in priority courses such as medicine and engineering, setting and enforcing quality levels, improving access and attainment for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring students benefit from increased competition in the sector, and resolving disputes between students and institutions.

Other recommendations include suggesting that all new academics with teaching responsibilities should undertake a teaching qualification; an Access and Success fund should be set up to help universities recruit and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds; the Higher Education Council should have the power to bail out struggling institutions; and it would also explore options such as mergers and takeovers if institutions were facing financial failure.

The newer universities, members of the think-tank million+, warn that both students and institutions will lose out. Professor Les Ebdon, its chair and Vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said: "Browne is a double whammy hitting both universities and students.

"At a stroke, universities stand to lose up to £3.5 billion of teaching funding. Whether they like it or not, universities could be forced to charge higher fees yet they will be worse off than at present."