The Vice Chancellor at the University of Sussex, Michael Farthing, warned last week that students will have to pay up to £7,500 annually to keep up standards in higher education. This was announced as lecturers carried out a one-day strike on Wednesday 5 May in response to the university’s decision to scrap 112 staff jobs in a bid to reduce spending by £5million.
The independent review of national student fees, known as the Browne Review, was launched on 15 March this year to investigate how student fees might change in the future. It includes consulting students on their priorities for changes to the higher education funding system and student finance.
The University of Sussex, as part of the 1994 Group of leading research-led institutions, has given evidence to the review. Professor Farthing said he hopes the report, to be published in full later this year, will recommend a significant increase in the current cap on top-up fees of £3,240 a year. Currently, these fees contribute approximately 17% of the annual income to the university.
The report could lead to fees of £7,000 a year, rising to around £14,000 for those studying more expensive courses, such as the sciences.
While the review committee is unlikely to sanction the rise straight away, it may permit institutions to increase fees above the rate of inflation – possibly up to £1,000 a year – as they move towards a free market.
A source close to the review told the Sunday Times that Lord Browne wanted “the cap off altogether, but he will go by tiers”.
Farthing added: “This is very much a personal view, but if the fees cap went up to £5,000 a year it would just about keep us where we are or get us back to where we were a couple of years ago in terms of funding.
“That won’t solve the problem and – if there is to continue to be a cap – I would have thought that if we’re going to maintain the unit of resource [in terms of funding per student] we’re probably looking at a cap of between £7,000 and £7,500.”
Evidence from the report already suggests the cap should rise to between £5,000 and £7,000. The only political party who had a firm policy on top-up fees during the election campaign was the Liberal Democrats who pledged to phase them out within six years. Labour and the Conservatives have said they will await the outcome of the inquiry.
The National Union of Students (NUS) reported that 200 Labour candidates have signed a pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees – making it likely Labour will find it difficult to back a substantial rise. Only 13 Conservative candidates signed the pledge, compared to 400 Liberal Democrats.
James Hakner, spokesman for the university, said: “Wherever fees are set as a result of the Browne review, we will continue to ensure that talented students whatever their background can have access to high quality education at Sussex. We already exceed our benchmarks for widening participation, through the work we do with pupils from non-traditional and under-represented HE backgrounds.
He added: “We are committed to continuing the Sussex Bursary Scheme and other financial programmes that provide additional financial support for students from low income backgrounds.”