Against a backdrop of widespread protest, party factions and the narrowing of the government’s notional Commons majority, the debate over tuition fees has arguably proven the most difficult issue for the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition government to overcome and shows no signs of fading into the background.
The government’s Higher Education White Paper, which was due to be published by March 2011, has been delayed in order for the coalition to gauge, and take into account, the amounts universities are likely to charge when the new measures regarding tuition fees come into effect.
Universities Minister David Willetts said that he was delaying the publication of the White Paper to see how ‘price setting works in spring’ after MPs voted to raise fees to between £6,000 and £9,000 a year in December. The government had initially modelled their higher education proposals with an average fee of £7,500 in mind, however since Cambridge and Imperial College London have both recently revealed they will charge £9,000 a year, the release of these proposals has been postponed whilst alterations are considered.
Mr Willetts had warned that if average fees were above £7,500 the government would have to consider cutting teaching grants further, which were already due an 80% cut in the government’s proposals. This news comes after the proportion of 16-24 year olds not in employment, education or training (NEET) reached 15.6% in December of last year, the highest final quarter figure since 2005 totalling nearly a million. This increase appears to realise concerns that young people have been hit particularly hard by the recession as job opportunities dwindle and education is hit hard by austerity measures.
Furthermore, in the early stages of the year, youth unemployment reached its highest level since comparable records began in 1992, hitting 20.5%. This comes after the Education Maintenance Allowance study support grant for students of low income families (EMA) and the Future Jobs Fund for 18-24 year olds out of employment for more than 6 months both fell victim to the Coalition’s sweeping cuts.
Mr Willetts has confirmed that he would welcome debate on the issue of accepting additional self-funding students and has given assurances that he would work with Home Office Minister Damian Green to ensure that controls on student visas won’t discourage students travelling to the UK to study. A further review of post-graduate study has also been alluded to by Mr Willetts as the government looks to ease widespread concerns regarding young people, education and employment.
Reaction to Willetts’ revelations regarding the delay of the White Paper has been scathing. Shadow Universities Minister Gareth Thomas claimed that the delay proved that the Coalition’s plans were ‘in trouble’ with Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU Lecturer’s Union describing the situation as a “complete debacle”.
Mr Willetts has given assurances that the Higher Education White Paper will be published by June, meaning that the tuition fees saga has at least another couple of months to run yet.