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Committee member warns that aims will be subverted

Sir Ron Dearing's plans for great expansion in higher education are unlikely to be realised because of a government funding shortfall, Sir William Stubbs, a member of his committee of inquiry into higher education, has said.

Deep year-on-year Treasury cuts would halt many of Sir Ron's recommendations for re-shaping universities and colleges.

The Dearing report called for a Pounds 350 million injection into universities and colleges next year and Pounds 565m the year after to halt cuts which could damage the world-class reputation of Britain's higher education system. By 2017 higher education would need an extra Pounds 2 billion a year to fund the reforms outlined in the Dearing report's 1,700 pages.

But an initial analysis of the Government proposals obtained by The TES suggests the income generated will fall well short of Sir Ron's targets.

In a speech at the Southampton Institute Sir William said: "There is an integrity about this report and its recommendations. If you start tinkering and moving bits out, one has got to be on the alert. Over the next 20 years, we accept there could be significant efficiency savings in HE but we are not convinced 6.5 per cent over two years was feasible with maintaining quality - yet that is locked into Government plans.

"The committee would say if those efficiency gains are still in place, much of this is a non-starter. Somewhere in Government there needs to be an easing of the pressures on those providing higher education."

Pressure from the Treasury is thought to be behind Ministers' decision to reject Sir Ron's proposals on fees. He wanted a flat-rate Pounds 1,000 a year to be paid by a loan. The Government's preferred solution will leave students from the poorest backgrounds at least Pounds 10,000 in debt when they graduate, by abolishing the maintenance grant - even though it will let them off paying fees.

Officials refused to spell out how much the Government's fees and loans plan would yield, although they insisted it would be more than Dearing's favoured scheme.

But figures based on the estimates in Sir Ron's report suggested the scheme would bring in only slightly more than the Pounds 150m Sir Ron's proposal would yield over two years. Although it would produce substantially more in the long run, universities would still face a Pounds 300m a year shortfall in 20 years time.

Students and Labour backbenchers, meanwhile, expressed dismay at plans to scrap grants and introduce fees despite pledges that students from low-income families would be spared charges for tuition. And they questioned whether students from low-income backgrounds would be prepared to put themselves Pounds 10,000 in debt for a degree.

Former Labour education secretary Lord Glenamara, who as Ted Short served in Harold Wilson's administration in the late 1960s, launched a furious attack on the scheme. He said: "I do not know whether I can remain in a party and support a Government which is prepared to do this to its people.

"I am ashamed that my Labour party is proposing to erect two enormous barriers between young people from working-class homes and higher education.

National Union of Students president Douglas Trainer said: "People feel it has to be a quality product they will be investing in. We are talking to a group of people who really need convincing."

Labour left-wingers also joined the attack. And Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said he "remained to be convinced" about the wisdom of fees.

But Education Secretary David Blunkett insisted: "The present system is clearly not working."

He said: "Rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. The investment of the nation must be balanced by the commitment of the individual. Each will gain from the investment made."

He said the poorest would not have to pay fees "That is the best way of encouraging access and free education for the least well-off."

Lecturers welcomed the decision to ring-fence money from fees for higher education. David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said; "We want fully-funded growth in higher education, which we know cannot happen on the basis of present resources."

But Liz Allen, head of higher education at the lecturers' union, NATFHE, said: "The current funding crisis in the universities and colleges will have to be reversed if more students are to benefit from higher education."

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