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No limits: time to ignore Hefce?

Minutes show that UCL board mooted flouting cap on numbers to fill budget gap, writes Simon Baker

University College London could consider "ignoring" the control on student numbers to help it meet a £35 million funding shortfall it faces even if it charges undergraduates £9,000 a year in tuition fees, an internal meeting has heard.

The suggestion was made at a December meeting of UCL's academic board, details of which have now been made public.

Malcolm Grant, the provost, told the board that UCL was set to lose £100 million a year by 2014-15, mainly because of government cuts. He went on to forecast that a £9,000 fee for home and European Union undergraduates from 2012-13 would bring in £43 million after allowing for support for poor students, while £22 million could be raised by charging more for overseas students and taught postgraduate courses.

This would still leave the Russell Group university £35 million short - equivalent to a 16 per cent staffing cut or a 10 per cent reduction in total expenditure - if it does not find savings elsewhere, according to slides from Professor Grant's presentation.

Minutes from the meeting note that "a fee of £9,000 would only just cover the cut in the undergraduate (teaching) grant, but would not make up for losses in other areas, notably postgraduate fees and capital funding".

Members of the academic board suggested various ways UCL could find extra money or make savings, including squeezing four-year undergraduate degrees into three years and developing distance learning.

The potential for increasing the number of home and EU students was discussed, albeit with the warning that "a fundamental review of the estate would be needed as some academic departments (are) already running at full capacity".

One board member then suggested that UCL could breach the Higher Education Funding Council for England's cap on student numbers and pay the consequent fines. The minutes state: "A suggestion was made...that UCL might consider ignoring any cap on home undergraduate student numbers on the grounds that writing off the resultant fines could become (a) financially viable option if UCL was no longer to be dependent on the (teaching) grant."

Professor Grant's presentation was modelled on UCL's teaching grant being cut by 70 per cent by 2014-15 - with undergraduate funding taking a £40 million hit and postgraduate taught provision losing £8 million.

As well as the rise in undergraduate fees, the slides also consider the extra income that could be found by increasing fees for postgraduate taught courses to at least £10,000 and raising charges for overseas students by 15 per cent.

The minutes, though, go on to report that it is "essential to bear in mind" that it was "unclear to what extent students who had already paid higher fees for an undergraduate programme would be willing or able to pay for a (postgraduate taught) programme".

Decisions on fees will not be confirmed before a meeting of UCL's governing council in March, according to the minutes, which were made available with the presentation on the university's website. According to The Cheese Grater, the UCL student magazine that revealed the details of the meeting, the documents were later removed from the site.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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