Dearing poised to decide on fees

Nicolas Barnard

Sir Ron Dearing's committee reviewing higher education is next week expected to finalise its recommendations on student funding - perhaps the most eagerly-waited aspect of its far-reaching task.

The TES understands a range of proposals to be put to the committee on funding is likely to include charging students up to Pounds 1,000 a year in tuition fees.

But Sir Ron and his committee will also be asked to consider alternative proposals, which could include a "learning account" for higher education.

Tuition fees were not favoured by the whole funding sub-committee, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Holland. It is understood that the working party was pulled in several directions, and, in the words of one member, "nothing has been ruled in, and nothing has been ruled out".

One insider said: "University vice-chancellors would like something not unlike the Pounds 1,000 fee which would give them money quickly. They tend to view the need for extra funding as the priority.

"But others are attracted by the idea of individual learning accounts linked to a lifetime learning model."

The "learning account" would be a system of credits, likely to be part-funded by the government, with other contributions possibly coming from students and employers.

The lifelong learning model may be the key to the funding issue. The Dearing committee was given a remit by the previous government - with Labour support - to look up to 20 years into the future and to question fundamentally the whole nature of higher education.

As HE changes rapidly, with increased flexibility, greater use of information technology, distance learning and modularised courses, often delivered in part at further education colleges, any long-term plans for funding will have to take into account a radically-altered landscape, observers believe.

Vice-chancellors appear re-signed to the need to charge students tuition fees. In their evidence to the committee last year, they urged a move to student loans to replace grants, with, if necessary, an element to cover tuition fees.

The Dearing committee is expected to deliver its final report to the Government in July.

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Nicolas Barnard

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