The government body assigned to vet applications from universities wanting to charge £9000 tuition fees has confirmed criticisms that it would be “toothless and ineffectual” by failing to ask a single university to charge lower fees than they proposed.
The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was heralded by the government as a safeguard that would ensure universities were only able to charge top fees of £9000 “under exceptional circumstances”. Supposedly, these universities would have to prove to OFFA their commitment to new and rigorous access schemes to encourage entry for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to be given the green light on fees. Yet not one single institution has had its proposed fee levels reduced by the regulator.
Campaigners protested when the plans were announced at the end of last year, voicing concerns that OFFA was a “toothless” regulator which had never imposed sanctions or taken action against any university since its formation. They waved aside government insistence that the regulator would be given new powers and increased authority. Now they seem to have been proved right, as it has been officially announced that a vast number of universities in England have been given the go-ahead to charge £9000 tuition fees from 2012. A total of 47 out of 123 universities will charge this maximum fee across every single course, with the average fee set to be £8393, far higher than the government prediction of £7500.
Opposition leaders and campaign groups voiced deep concerns about the announcement, with National Union of Students president Liam Burns pointing out that the government’s promises have been “left in tatters”.
Perhaps most frustrating of all for equal access campaigners will be the lacklustre mediocrity of the so-called “adventurous” and “stretching” targets adopted by these top price universities to justify their sky-high fees. The strong implication is that these targets should be adequate to offset the impact of the new, trebled fees on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet Cambridge University’s ‘tough and stretching’ target is a mere increase of state school students to 61-63% of the student body within five years, an underwhelming two per cent rise from their current ratio of 59.3%.
Given that state school pupils make up over 80% of sixth form pupils this seems a paltry and unimpressive target, extremely unlikely to realistically reduce the impact of the enormous new fees to any significant effect. Yet these access plans have been approved by OFFA as sufficient to justify the charging of £9000 tuition fees.
Furthermore, little thought seems to have been given to students falling into the gap between the very poorest and those who are able to manage to pay for pricy expenses such as accommodation and maintenance costs. Certainly it is true that those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds may be supported under the new scheme, with bursaries and fee-waivers in place to protect them. But what about those who will not quite be poor enough to qualify for such support, while nonetheless under enough financial strain to be deterred by the prospect of £9000 fees?
While it may be true that the new access guidelines will protect an extreme minority, it is unlikely that they will do enough to prevent a serious backslide in social mobility and equal access to university once these new, sky-high fees are introduced in 2012.