& opinion


New university funding plans, announced this week, will give institutions such as Sussex the right to charge radically higher fees. In many cases tuition fees, presently frozen at £1,100 a year, may triple to over £3,000. However, with such a system in place, universities will have the right to charge up to £20,000 a year, piling on the daunting pressure of paying back mammoth loans in years to come.

Vice-Chancellor Alasdair Smith - already in the process of being declared in a position of no confidence by the Free Education Society - has expressed enthusiasm for such a scheme. In a letter to the badger printed on page five), Smith states that he "broadly welcomes"the proposed new system. Smith has been quite a vocal campaigner for the introduction of top-fees in recent months, even meeting with Tony Blair at the end of last year, along with a number of other Vice-Chancellors, to argue in favour of the plan.

There is a high chance that Sussex may be one of the first universities to introduce extra fees. This could mean a dramatic change in the intake of students at Sussex, leading to a situation where Sussex is ranked alongside Oxford and Cambridge in terms of exclusivity, though not in terms of teaching quality. With Sussex’s notoriously low contact hours for arts students already causing many students to question where their tuition fees are going, the prospect of £3000 a year fees for less than five hours of contact time a week seems to pose many pertinent questions on the direction Sussex is taking.

Sussex has long had an emphasis on research over teaching, and there seems little indication that this will change with the increased fees. During the Vice-Chancellor’s time at this university, many of the aspects considered "special" about Sussex teaching have been gradually eroded. With the end of the old school system accompanied by increasing seminar sizes and decreasing contact hours, it will be hard to convince cash-strapped students that what is in terms of league tables and results an average university,is worth the extra cash.

A number of spokespeople on free education have come out against these latest proposals, claiming them to be ’social and economic elitism to the extreme.’ Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman Phil Willis accused ministers of a ‘sell-out for Britain’s students and our universities.’ An ‘access regulator’ will be appointed if the plan goes through, whose job it will be to ensure poorer pupils can enter elite institutions. These universities will ‘lose their right to charge higher fees’ if they fail to improve their record of taking students from poorer backgrounds, but even such an idea will inevitably fail to save thousands of potential students from being able to pay the fees. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education said at the weekend that variable fees would drain the life-blood’ from the university system.

In a classic ploy from the New Labour government to diffuse opposition to the introduction new scheme, it has pledged to re-introduce grants to students whose parents fall into the lowest income bracket. Furthermore, the poorest universities, already in dire financial straits due to lack of government funding, will suffer more at the hands of the proposed top-up fees as a complex tiered form of graduate tax and the differential fees would mean universities would be able to set fees at differing levels, depending on the course and prestige of the university. The inequalities already existing within higher education, such as facilities, services and class sizes, will thus inevitably become greater.

The badger will continue to bring you the latest on the changes to university funding, particularly those that affect Sussex students. Look out for an exclusive interview with Vice-Chancellor Alisdair Smith in the badger next week.