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University top-up fees: fair or not?

Will top-up fees bridge the gap between rich and poor or prove another hurdle for the working classes?

NO: TOP-UP fees are one of those simple and seductive proposals that are initially appealing; they offer a way to cut through persistent underfunding for universities. New books, equipment, civilised seminar numbers and studentlecturer ratios: all these could be yours if only we could overcome these frankly old-fashioned objections to universities setting their own fee levels.

But once you pursue the detail of top-up fees, the logic unravels rapidly. Virtually no one denies the need - despite the extra pound;100 million for 2001-02 recently announced by the Government - to find additional sources of funding for higher education over the next decade. But there is little evidence that top-up fees would deliver funds to the sector overall.

It would be extremely naive to assume that the Treasury would continue its current level of public funding if it saw universities getting extra income from top-ups. It would be the new universities and the "middling sort" which would suffer from such a cut - precisely those institutions that have been at the forefront of attracting students from non-traditional university entrance backgrounds. Older women, people from ethnic minorities and mature students would lose out.

The argument for top-up fees was made last month in a report by a group of economists led by David Greenaway. In making its case, it anxiously reassured its audience that access would not be affected, that universities would be able to operate a "needs blind" policy of admissions and that students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be cushioned by bursary and scholarship funds. But they do little to explain how.

Comparisons with tuition feesin the United States are misleading. A long history of allowable deductions via its tax system, and entirely different expectations, puts America in a different category - especially in the case of the Ivy League universities. Harvard recently raised $2.5 billion via an alumni appeal. Last year, fund-raising enabled Harvard to disburse $53m in scholarships and $90m to aid its students in other ways. Those are figures which no British university could match.

Greenaway attempts to brush aside objections with a stark message that "there is no alternative". But there are several. Gordon Brown has already indicated tax-system changes - extending tax relief for gifts of shares to charities and allowing non-resident individuals and companies to make Gift Aid donations. This could be widened to trusts whose proceeds would benefit higher education.

A "leisure technology levy" on video and CD-ROM game sales and rentals, which I have previously advocated, would raise pound;200m-plus to fund individual learning accounts or higher education. A challenge fund could be used to encourage tax-exempt donations for students from non-traditional backgrounds to enter further or higher education. Charitable university trusts could also issue bonds, offering alumni and others a decent rate of return.

All of these could take us a long way towards the extra pound;1 billion a year Greenaway suggests universities need.

Top-up fees are a short-term fix to get the bureaucrats of certain universities off the funding hook. But they will not provide either the maintenance of excellence or the widening of access to which the Government is committed.

Gordon Marsden is Labour MP for Blackpool South and a member of the current select committee inquiry into higher education

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