In a revealing session with the Imperial College Union executive committee, Imperial's Rector Sir Richard Sykes has come out against simple removal of the cap on tuition fees, saying:
"You can't take the cap off, that's an absolute nonsense. You can't allow 145 institutions to charge what they like, that would be a disaster."
In a discussion on higher education funding he criticised the current model, saying that the proposed market in higher education had not materialised. He favoured a £5,000 cap initially, which would have lead to some institutions charging lower fees, rather than everyone charging the same amount as occurs at present.
Sir Richard also believes that raising the cap to £5,000 would also be a disaster and of little concern to Imperial. With only 6,000 students a £2,000 rise in fees would amount to a few million pounds and not be the correct model at all. Other universities, in particular former polytechnics, would benefit much more as they have 40,000 students at could attract tens of millions of pounds, while running fewer expensive lab courses. He commented on the need for a new debate, to find a new model which allows everyone who wants to go to a good university to do so.
A Different Model
The funding model favoured by the Rector is one where the £3,000 cap remains, however the government makes up the full economic cost of teaching. He would like to see the most able students, whatever their background, to have the opportunity to attend well-funded top universities. He described it as "a damn good investment".
Under this model the additional funding would be triggered by the student receiving good grades and receiving a place at a top university. When asked whether he thought it was the responsibility of the Government or the College to provide this system, he discussed both options. College providing bursaries would require removal of the cap at the top universities (and only the top universities), so they could charge the full economic cost to those who could afford it. Bursaries would then be paid to those students less able to afford the high fees and living costs.
This College-based model was seen as unrealistic, as the Government is unlikely to allow only the top universities to charge uncapped fees. As a result, he said, "it has to be the Government".
The Rector's emphasis throughout was on good universities, not the same funding system for all 145 higher education institutions. The new debate is sure to open soon, particulary with further education colleges able to award degrees: is a return to a multi-tier higher education system the way forward?