Raising fees should require raising your game, too

Institutions charging more could face fines if they let students down, v-c warns. Simon Baker reports

Any university that is allowed to charge higher tuition fees in the future could face financial penalties if it fails to deliver on promises to students, a vice-chancellor has warned.

Paul Wellings, chair of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities, told a public hearing of the review of higher education fees and funding yesterday that it would be fair to expect institutions to meet “minimum” standards to students if fees were raised.

However, the vice-chancellor of Lancaster University stopped short of suggesting a national regulatory framework for scrutinising universities that charge higher fees, saying he would be “wary” of such a move.

He told the hearing, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, that any reform of the current financing arrangements would have to be matched by increased student scrutiny.

He said institutions needed to make clear to potential new recruits what they could expect from a university in terms of key factors such as staff-to-student ratios and contact time. “The onus will be on institutions to be articulate about the nature of the experience for those students,” he told the panel at a hearing in Bristol. “I think the onus will be on us to think about that relationship much more firmly than we have in the past.”

When pressed by the panel on the form such scrutiny should take, Professor Wellings said individual universities, and not a national body, should be responsible for the framework. “I’m very wary of a highly centralised, homogenised approach to regulating everything and having the same system in place across the sector,” he said.

Speaking to reporters after giving evidence, Professor Wellings suggested that financial sanctions could be imposed on universities that fail to meet student expectations.

“If a university offers ‘x’ say, as a minimum standard, and then is always in breach of that, then the funding council…could begin by saying, ‘Why are you not up to the pace given that you are making this commitment’ and ultimately ask if the public resource is being used to best effect,” he said.

“What’s in the jar should be what’s on the label,” he added.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

• For full coverage of this week’s evidence sessions, see Times Higher Education on May.

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