The current cap on top-up fees of around £3,000 is up for review in Parliament next year, and many leading institutions are pressuring the government to increase the cap to around £10,000. Other Universities are encouraging politicians to remove the cap completely, allowing institutions to charge whatever they like.
RHUL Vice-Principal Professor Geoff Ward told The Founder he believes if fees are increased there would need to be “visible benefits to the student experience and significant financial support to ensure Royal Holloway could continue to recruit the brightest and best students from all backgrounds.”
The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) maintains that the cost of studying is not affecting the number of applications they receive. However, a recent report by the NUS has revealed that whilst this may be the case at the moment, the entire higher education funding system is unfair and unsustainable.
The “Broke and Broken” report claims that if the cap is raised to £7,000 per year, many students will graduate with a debt of over £37,000. This states the report, is comparable only with debt “associated with home ownership”, and yet unlike a mortgage, where it is certain you will eventually own your home outright, the report says there is “no guarantee of success”.
The “graduate premium”, the amount a graduate can expect to earn over their working lifetime compared to a person with two A Levels, would be cancelled out by the level of debt in many cases, the report claims. In the example given in the report, Arts students graduating with a debt of £37,000 would actually obtain a negative premium; they would stand to lose out financially by taking a degree.
In order to avoid having to take out the maximum loan, it is thought many more students would have to take on part time employment. Recent figures from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) show that when paid work exceeds 21 hours per week, there is a negative effect on the students’ work and attendance in lectures and seminars. 3% of students already work in excess of 33 hours per week. The effect of an increase in tuition fees on student employment is as yet unknown.
DIUS claims the current system of bursaries available both nationally and within Colleges and Universities will mean there is no negative impact on students. However, the NUS argue that these bursaries simply increase inequality in the system. More prestigious institutions are able to give large bursaries to their relatively small population of students from low income backgrounds. At the same time, the less prestigious universities and colleges have far more students from low income backgrounds, and therefore cannot afford to provide as much individual support. Besides this, the government has recently announced drastic cutbacks to the bursarial system after a predicted over-spend of £200m.
The NUS asserts it is not only financial inequality which will be fuelled by an increase in top-up fees. If the cap is increased, not all institutions will charge the maximum allowable amount. However, the report claims this will simply reinforce existing inequality in terms of teaching quality, with more prestigious institutions charging higher fees than those lower down the league tables.
Some students may question the effectiveness of an NUS campaign. It is important to note though that four years ago when top-up fees were first introduced, the Commons vote at second reading was the closest the government had come to defeat since 1997. The bill passed by only five votes. It is for this reason SURHUL are actively supporting and promoting the campaign: this time, further pressure really could stop any proposed increases from being passed.