The head of the Charity Commission has stepped into the university tuition fees debate, saying colleges needed to ensure access for the poorest people.
Dame Suzi Leather also indicated that universities’ charitable status – worth millions of pounds a year in tax breaks – could come under review if people complained about being put off studying by high costs.
Her comments come after a series of nationwide demonstrations about the coalition Government’s proposals to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year, and ahead of an expected parliamentary vote on the matter next month.
She said: “Where charities charge high fees they have to ensure that there is a way of people who can’t afford those fees benefiting in a material way from that charity’s activities. From a charity law point of view, they will of course have to make provision for people who can’t afford the fees to benefit.
“Charities must bear in mind their need to provide access across a range of income distribution, not just people in poverty.”
Dame Suzi warned that institutions they could face probes if people complain that they are being put off studying by the tuition fees.
“If somebody comes to us and says they’re unhappy about something that’s going on in a charity, then we would assess that and see whether there was a case to answer,” she said.
The Charity Commission is the principal regulator for the autonomous colleges of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities as well as numerous other institutions in England and Wales. Most universities benefit from charitable status by not paying corporation tax on surpluses, also reclaiming tax from donations through Gift Aid.
Staff at Dame Suzi’s offices in Millbank were caught up in the violent student protest against higher tuition fees on November 10. Another nationwide series of student marches, sit-ins and walk-outs also resulted in dozens of arrests and clashes with police.