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C of E sector wary of Browne findings

by Margaret Holness, Education Correspondent

THE 14 Cathedral Group univer­sities and university colleges in England were this week estimating their future prospects in the changed higher-education (HE) landscape emerging from the recommendations of the long-awaited review of higher education by Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief executive of BP.

The principal proposal from his panel would mean the removal of the cap on tuition fees, which would at least double. The most prestigious institutions would charge £10,000 or more annually.

The fees would be paid upfront by the Government and repaid by the students after graduation, at levels determined by the size of their salary. The Browne panel proposes special arrangements, including an access fund, to help the poorest, but most students would graduate with estimated debts of at least £30,000. Loans would be extended to part-time students.

While the Government would continue to support medicine, nursing, the hard sciences, engineering, some languages, and other priority subjects, institutions such as those in the Cathedrals Group, which do not offer these subjects, would have to rely largely on fees. Moreover, the HE sector as a whole expects an 80-per-cent cut in funding in the spending review.

Professor Tim Wheeler, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Chester, who chairs the Cathedral Group, said: “For institutions like ours which offer many subjects which are not regarded as priority courses, and which, Lord Browne suggests, do not merit continued public funding beyond students’ tuition fees, the future appears challenging. This is despite our focus on programmes in education, health, and social care on which society depends.”

He was also critical of the pro­posal that student demand should determine the number of places in each discipline. “For courses that combine academic study with train­ing that qualifies graduates to enter a range of specialist professions, we should expect an overall limit on the total number of qualified profes­sionals required each year, and the involvement of professional bodies in the accreditation of programmes.”

He also questioned the proposal for a single Higher Education Council (HEC) to replace the four existing organisations. “Assessment of the quality of the sector must be independent of the funding body,” he said.

The HE commentator Professor John Howson says that the Browne review has crafted an elegant solution to the tuition-fees question, which makes it clear that HE investment is principally the responsibility of the individual, not society. “However, his report is less secure on the consequences for society of the changes he proposes.”

A particular problem for the Cathedral Group institutions, Pro­fessor Howson said, was the propos­al to link funding to appli­cants’ qualifications for entering higher education. Many of the group’s students enter with non-traditional “equivalent” quali­fications, which may be subject to more external scrutiny; and students’ choosing to live at home would affect insti­tu­tions in less-populated areas.

The review says that, though the new HEC could bail out financially embarrassed universities, as the Higher Education Funding Council for England has done with, among others, two C of E foundations, the Universities of Gloucestershire and Cumbria, it should also consider mergers and takeovers.

The Student Christian Movement said on Wednesday that it was “very concerned” about a steep rise in tuition fees.

Leader comment, page 12

Question of the week: Has Browne identified the best way to fund higher education?

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