Following earlier reports that the government is considering "early" legislation in this parliament to enable top-up fees in the next one, a new twist has emerged. Legislation is unlikely because everyone now suddenly agrees that a change in the law is not required.
The Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 allows the government to vary the level of tuition fees. While the Department for Education and Skills would not comment on the provisions of the Act, it is understood that existing legislation permits them to introduce differential fees (the practice of charging varying amounts for courses and/or institutions). Any changes in fee levels proposed by the Secretary of State for Education would have need to be approved by Parliament ? however it would not need to go to either House as the decision could be made in Parliamentary committees.
Both the Conservative education spokesman, Damian Green, and his Liberal Democrat counter-part, Phil Willis agreed that the government would not need new legislation to bring in top-up fees.
The government pledged in its manifesto at the last election that they would not introduce top-up or differential fees. While they have conveniently decided to interpret that as meaning for "this Parliament only" they seem to be committed to their manifesto pledge until the next election. However, there seems to be a worryingly increasing expectation that the government will be increasing the standard level of tuition fee (currently £1100) in the New Year, following publication of the much-delayed White Paper on higher education "student support." Mr Willis told journalists he expected fees to be increased in this Parliament because if the government waited to address the funding crisis it would "go into the next ? election in an almighty mess."
Of course, any significant fee increase could permit less academically elite institutions from charging a discounted fee, as a few ?new? universities already do to attract students to certain courses. This could effectively introduce top-up or differential fees by the back door.
Mr Willis remarked that "there are lots of other ways that the government can skin students and their parents in the current framework and people should not be so naive to think the only issue in town is top-up fees."