Future of university fees: John Denham

26 Sep 2007

I have just been chairing a fringe event at the Labour Party conference. The topic was the future funding of universities and the main guest was John Denham, the new Secretary of State for the Department of Innovation, Universities, and Skills.

Like others there, I was curious to see if we would get any hints about the future of the so-called university 'top-up fees'. We are, after all, not so far away from the promised review of the £3,000 ceiling on undergraduate fees due to take place in 2009.

What's more, if there is a General Election thsi Autumn (which I still doubt, despite the fevered speculation in the media), it will - inevitably - be a major issue for voters.

However, John Denham knows just how tricky an issue this could be for the government.

So he was quite blunt, saying: 'I will not discuss fees until 2009 -- it's just not helpful to do so yet'.

However, I thought I detected a strong hint that the universities - many of which seem to have already assumed that the 'cap' on fees will be lifted - should not be banking on future fee rises.

For a start, Mr Denham made it clear that he thought one important area of additional funding for universities would be - not the students themselves - but business and employers. In particular, he thinks there is much more income to be earned from employers and businesses for training their staff.

He also made it clear that he feels the universities still need to put up a case for why they need more money and what they would do with it. 

He also believes that the current divisions within the universities' ranks is not helping. As he put it: 'higher education is held back because there is not currently any parity of esteem within the sector'.

My view is that universities could be in for a tougher time than they perhaps expect. They now share the new government department with Further Education and with 'skills', both areas that will be very hungry for any extra cash the Chancellor is willing to give the public sector. 

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