Influential voices from a number of sectors have joined together this week to strongly dispute the government’s calculations for its new tuition fees scheme. As more and more universities come forward to declare their intention to charge the top level of £9000 tuition fees, protesters, independent analysts and members of the education sector alike have voiced their concern that the government’s figures may be wildly optimistic.

When they announced plans to introduce fees of £6000 to £9000 per academic year for university degrees, the government were adamant that the top band of fees would only be charged “in exceptional circumstances”, with Universities Minister David Willetts claiming that the average level of fees would balance out at £7500. Consequently the government’s calculations for its university budget have been based on an assumption of that average level of fees, a position Willetts refuses to retract despite the vast majority of universities so far announcing that they will charge the upper limit of £9000.

The problem is that the scheme for graduate repayments means that it will be the government itself that picks up the bill for fees in the first instance, with the vastly higher figures meaning that some 70% of graduates will never actually completely manage to pay back their entire loan. This in turn means that the burden of paying for higher fees will fall back on the government and the tax payer, with severe implications if the total level of fees charged is in excess of the assumed £7500 used for the government’s budget calculations.

Professor Michael Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, explained this week (as he announced fees of £9000) that his calculations showed there was simply no other option for the institution to consider. He revealed that charging fees of £6000 would result in a £26 million deficit for the university, and suggested that any university charging these levels would either quickly become bankrupt or would have to offer vastly lower standards of education provision.

This confirms what many other universities have already claimed – Oxford University explained that it would have to charge fees of £8000 simply to “stand still” financially (in other words to recoup from fees the funding lost through withdrawn government subsidies) but that the extra £1000 fees were then necessary to fulfil the government’s required extra access provisions for a high-charging institution.

Though Willetts has refused to budge on his assertion of a £7500 fees average, the clear indication is that this will fall considerably short of the mark, prompting ministers to begin considering still greater cuts to the education budget in an attempt to balance the extra fees funding that is likely to be required of the government.

Willetts himself has threatened further cuts to university teaching budgets if too many institutions charge higher fees, which would be a disastrous blow to a sector already struggling with enormous financial upheaval and strain. Another option being explored by the government is a forced reduction in university places, which would lower the overall bill of student fees, but this would cause considerable protest given the premise of the whole tuition fees scheme in the first place was to widen the availability of higher education provision!

Shadow Universities Minister Gareth Thomas has calculated that if the average level of tuition fees even reaches £8000, the government will have a deficit of £430 million to recoup in further cuts to education spending. Should this be achieved by cutting student places, he revealed that a total of 47,000 would have to be culled; the equivalent of 5% of current university places.

Willetts seems to have pinned his last hopes on a plethora of further education colleges, which are, he claims, “itching to come in at significantly below these headline top prices”, and ministers even seem to be considering authorising other similar higher education providers where students study for courses like the BTEC to bestow degrees. But experts warn that choosing this solution to the problem would quickly result in a return to the old university: polytechnic divide between better education affordable only to the rich and second class degrees for the poor.
So whilst ministers privately admit they have miscalculated, and Willetts stubbornly refuses to accept reality, it seems increasingly likely the eventual outcome will involve either further deep cuts to university teaching budgets, vastly reduced university places or a return to a two-tier, class driven higher education system. None are very appealing prospects.