From 2012, universities will be able to charge up to £9,000 per year for courses as the government shifts the bulk of financial responsibility from state to students with the possibility of £6,000 access fees for poorer students.
Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West, said this represents a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people”. The NUS has called the fact that students will now have to expect to pay almost three times the current sum ‘an outrage’.
Response & Reason
Students at ULU College Goldsmiths were reported to have occupied an administrative building as a result of the announcement, propping up banners and calling for the university to join them in protest.
The Russell Group, an organisation of 20 universities that represents the recipients of two thirds of the UK’s total research grant funds, understandably welcomed the increase and dubbed it ‘a life-saving cash transfusion’ and the ‘only way for the UK to remain a serious global player in higher education’.
On the other hand, the Million+ Group, which represents 27 universities instated after 1992, many of which are converted colleges and polytechnics given university status by John Major’s government, have denounced both the 40% higher education spending cuts and increase of fees, arguing that the former will give universities no other option but to charge the full £9,000. They collectively counter the Russell Group’s statement and question the reform’s ability to fund universities in the long-run.
Professor Les Ebdon, Million+ chair, personally worries that ‘the outcome of such high fees will be to damage participation and social mobility’.
Nick Clegg invited a group of specific students to meet with him for an informal Q&A session after the announcement. In an interview with the BBC, David Barclay, president of Oxford University Student Union, described Mr Clegg’s attempts to explain the benefits of Mr Willetts’ new system as ‘evasive’ while ULU president Clare Solomon commented that the ‘atmosphere inside the room was really angry’. On the other side of the table, Nick Clegg’s spokesman called it a ‘lively exchange of views’.
‘Progressive’ is the word that Universities Minister David Willetts used to describe the hike, also adding that it would ‘put universities’ finance on a sustainable footing with extra freedoms and less bureaucracy’.
The rebalancing of fee responsibility between government and pupil is expected to replace the cut to higher education funding last month.
This will mean that courses will have to rely almost entirely on the income gained from student fees, putting courses with a lower or a dwindling student uptake at greater risk much faster.
There is an ulterior motive behind the reform, and that is the coalition’s need to hold off a backbench rebellion from Liberal Democrat MPs. The new funding system can therefore be assumed to be a watered down version of the equivalent students would have been dealt under a purely Conservative government.
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, while saying that the proposal improved upon Lord Browne’s recommendations, refused to comment on whether he would vote to support the fee increase.
Aaron Porter, NUS President, has said that any Liberal Democrat MP who votes in favour of the increase in fees, thereby ditching one of their principal election promises, should be ‘ashamed of themselves’.
Many students themselves have complained over the Liberal Democrat’s behaviour citing that their votes were won over by Liberal Democrat candidates’ promises to vote against any rise in tuition fees, including a video message from Nick Clegg himself.
John Denham, the shadow Business Secretary, said that Labour would vote against the proposals.
Effect on Students
Mr. Willetts believes that the reform will create ‘greater choice for students with a stronger focus on high quality teaching’.
In his presentation of the plans to the House of Commons, Mr Willetts confirmed that universities will have to show that they are providing support for economically poorer students to be able to charge the higher fee levels. Targeted scholarships and summer schools, already active in many universities, are examples of such evidence. Whether this could additionally include simply charging poorer students the reduced rate of £6,000 (nearly twice the current tuition fee) is unclear. Mr Willetts does however promise a ‘tougher regime’ against universities who fall short in their efforts.
Of course, this confirms that there will be some sort of quota for universities to fill. Though an actual specification as to what qualifies as adequate evidence of support and what doesn’t are yet to be confirmed, leaving the concept looking rather too subjective.
The University of Leicester has carried out research into the effect that fee levels have on demand for places. Its initial findings show that it is the less prestigious universities who will see the most danger in terms of demands. However Sir Bob Burgess, Vice-Chancellor to the university, has said that there is no evidence that supports an outcome in which participation collapses.