A great number of questions and criticisms have arisen surrounding the government’s planned access and scholarship schemes for their new £9000 university tuition fees policy. Whilst they were quick to sketch plans for access for underprivileged students in the run-up to the controversial tuition fees vote, now the policy has been approved by MPs their promised aid schemes are disappearing at an alarming rate.
President of the National Union of Students Aaron Porter has raised concerns about the scrapping of the much publicised plans whereby the government would pay for the first year of tuition fees for those students who had been eligible for free school meals (a fair measure of deprivation). Porter implies that Universities Minister David Willetts dangled the generous scheme as a carrot to coerce Liberal Democrats concerned about abandoning their pledges into voting for higher tuition fees, and claims that indeed “many Liberal Democrats voted for it on that basis”.
Now however, the government have hastily backtracked, with the steering group planning the distribution of the £150 million access fund (on which Porter sits) instead considering a wide range of different access incentives with universities having the power to choose which they choose to adopt. Whilst far more wishy-washy and untargeted schemes such as “outreach activity” and “accommodation discounts” appear on the list, waived fees for free school meals students do not.
Porter fears that the complex nature of such a plan, which would result in different access measures and scholarship opportunities being available at each individual university, will prove a huge deterrent to poorer students applying for higher education. It also makes something of a mockery of the new role of ‘advocate for access to education’ to which Simon Hughes has just been appointed; it will be very difficult for him to ‘sell’ the government’s new scheme to underprivileged students if there is no clear national aid plan to outline to them.
Perhaps the reason the coalition government is hastily beating a red-faced retreat from their attractive aid proposals is that highly respected research groups and think-tanks have cast serious doubt on their capacity to fulfil their promises. For a start, the Million+ group, representing newer universities, has flatly pointed out that the £150 million fund will simply not be enough to cover the cost of a year’s tuition for the 10,670 students awarded free school meals last year alone.
In addition, chief executive Pam Tatlow has highlighted several gaping holes in Willetts’ hastily sketched plans for access aid. She pointed out that if, as suggested, the government requires universities to match their aid for free school meals students in their second year, those universities doing the most for equal access and underprivileged students will effectively be penalised. With Oxford and Cambridge boasting tiny percentages of such students, those institutions in question are generally much less financially secure and would be seriously imperilled by such a move, forcing them to have to choose between diminishing the scope of their access scheme or pushing tuition fees for other students still higher, lumping the burden of debt once again on the low to middle income earners.
Most incredibly of all (and for the coalition’s tuition fees scheme, most embarrassingly) the Higher Education Policy Institute has now revealed that after all this furore, and with all this damage to fair education access, the government’s tuition fees proposals are ultimately “as likely to cost as to save public money”! Having reviewed the coalition’s plans to take into account the desperate and quickly sketched concessions they tacked on at the last minute to help force the vote through, HEPI reveals that if the annual increase in graduate earnings falls just 16% short of the government’s estimate, no savings will be made at all by the scheme.
Considering the level of public outrage the proposals have caused and the very significant threat they pose to the likelihood of poorer students being able to attend top universities, this revelation is absolutely flabbergasting. Still more bad news came as it emerged that the government, having repeatedly declared that universities will only be able to charge fees of above £6000 per year under ‘extreme circumstances’, has created its estimates using an assumed average tuition cost of £7200 per year, whilst HEPI predicted it was quite likely that fees would in fact be “considerably higher”.
We can only anticipate the public outrage and disbelief that will result when news spreads that the coalition, having trebled university fees, dumped enormous economic debt onto the backs of struggling graduates, slashed the EMA and Aim Higher schemes and utterly reneged on their shining access schemes, are actually likely to make little or no saving at all to the public purse.