Education & Family

Oxbridge academics 'alarmed' over funding plans

Oxford don (unidentified)
Image caption Oxford and Cambridge are both likely to charge the maximum fee level

Hundreds of Oxford and Cambridge academics have expressed alarm over university funding plans in a letter to Universities Minister David Willetts.

They say universities are being asked to "fly blind" as they move to market-based fees without knowing the full details of the changes.

A White Paper setting out the shake-up, expected in March, has been delayed.

The government said its plans were fair and affordable, and more consultation was needed on the White Paper.

"We note with dismay and alarm that universities are being forced to take major decisions, with unknown consequences, at a breakneck speed," the academics say, writing in the Independent newspaper.

"We are being asked to 'fly blind' over matters of the utmost importance in respect of our ability to continue to deliver world-class education and research," they say.

Parliament voted in December to allow universities to raise fees from the current level of just over £3,000 a year to between £6,000 and £9,000.

'Risky and irresponsible'

Much of the money from increased fees will replace funds the government has cut from university teaching budgets.

This will create a much more direct link between how many students choose a course and how much money the university has to run it.

The academics fear that the proposed model, where "the money follows the student", may end up "depriving some courses of income streams, and decimating the funding for teaching in some institutions, without any coherent and publicly announced policy in regard to which of these institutions and courses the government believes should be left to fail".

Allowing "student choice" to shape the sector as currently proposed is an "extremely risky and irresponsible experiment", the academics warn.

They are calling for a public commission of inquiry into the changes.

Mr Willetts has outlined plans for a major restructuring of the higher education sector, including allowing private providers to take state-subsidised students, permitting universities to accredit courses taught elsewhere, and enabling struggling universities to shut down or be taken over.

The government had said it would publish a White Paper detailing the plans by the end of March.

But last week it said it was delaying the White Paper, partly because it wants to assess the fee levels that universities want to charge from 2012.

Professor Peter de Bolla of King's College, Cambridge, involved in organising the letter, said institutions were essentially being asked to set fees "in the dark", without a clear understanding of the implications of the consequences of their decisions.

The government was putting the "cart before the horse" by bringing in the new fees structure and then leaving it to the market to determine how it reshaped the sector, he said.

He says the government has modelled its plans on the assumption that universities would charge an average fee of £7,500, but many expect the majority of institutions to opt for higher fees.

"It's a good idea to decide how many people are coming to a dinner party before you do the shopping," he said.

The 1994 Group of smaller research intensive universities have said the delay risks creating uncertainty and instability.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the sector had already been "extensively consulted" during Lord Browne's independent review of higher education funding, after which the reforms were developed.

"Our student and university finance reforms are fairer than the present system and affordable for the nation.

"No one will be asked to pay up-front costs, there will be more financial support for poorer students and funding for universities will follow individual study choices leading to an increased focus on graduate outcomes," said a department spokesperson.

"The Higher Education White Paper will focus on wider challenges facing the sector. We believe it is important to take more time to engage comprehensively with stakeholders before publishing our long-term vision for higher education," the spokesperson added.

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