Following a public outcry over top UK universities announcing their intent to charge the maximum £9000 tuition fees, Nick Clegg and his coalition government have desperately tried to defend their promises with tyrannical posturing and empty threats. Before the vote on tuition fees, they promised a fairer education system for all, with the poorest pupils paying less than they do now and a possible government waiver of fees for free school meals pupils. After the policy went through they claimed only a tiny minority of universities would charge the highest rate, and that the sanctions imposed on those that did so would be so severe that they would somehow cow the institutions into performing access miracles of epic proportions.
Now however, the figures have emerged, and as the smoke clears from meetings and decisions on both sides, the picture is becoming painfully clear. The top universities are all leaning towards £9000 tuition fees, for the simple reason that an enormous £8000 is required to replace cut government funding alone. If they are then to fulfil the extra access requirements demanded by the government, they must charge the extra £1000 simply to avoid becoming bankrupt or having to cut courses and teaching staff.
Meanwhile the government has announced a paltry £50 million scholarship scheme which is somehow magically supposed to solve the problem of access to university for those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds now faced with trebled tuition fees and the prospect of insurmountable graduate debt. When you realise that the government has withdrawn £500 million pounds from the scrapped EMA scheme alone, the figures show an enormous deficit in the financial support for access to education.
Meanwhile Clegg has the audacity to appear righteously outraged at Oxbridge plans to raise tuition fees, pompously declaring that it is “not up to them” to decide how much to charge, and that they will face strict regulation and control from the Office for Fair Access before permission to do so will be granted. The sheer ridiculousness of this statement could not be greater when one considers that it certainly wasn’t “up to them” when tuition fees were hiked in the first place – many universities campaigned vociferously against the blow to higher education; nor was it “up to them” that the government chose to revoke almost 90% of its funding for higher education and teaching. Now he claims it isn’t “up to them” as if they are greedily rubbing their hands in glee and fleecing students as they are forced to raise fees merely to cope with the huge financial hole in which he has left them, as they desperately struggle just to survive.
His attempt to somehow make the universities into the ‘bad guys’ and cast himself as the heroic defender of poor exploited students is almost too incredible to believe. This came in the same BBC interview in which he firmly refused to apologise to students for his unquestionable deceitfulness and betrayal in abandoning the tuition fees pledge that caused so many of them to vote for him in the first place. NUS President Aaron Porter said Clegg was “living in a fantasy land” if he thought he could become “a champion for students”.
Clegg also stubbornly persisted with the cowardly defence he has adopted since the controversy began, suggesting once again that it has been the protests and outrage over the plans that have done the most damage to university access than the policy itself, as he claimed “the controversy around these policies, some of the lurid headlines, will of course have had an intimidating effect on some young people who are thinking of going to university in the future.” Once again when raising this issue he obtusely refused to acknowledge that if such public ignorance were in fact a problem then it was surely largely due to the government’s repeated refusal to engage and discuss the plans and to address the concerns of the protesters. It seems increasingly likely that this refusal to engage in a debate on the issue may be caused by the government realising that the facts and figures about tuition fees simply do not back up their claims.
Clegg continues to insist that the influence and power of the OFFA will be significant enough to force huge leaps in access figures at top universities if they choose to charge higher tuition fees. Yet those powers have been available to OFFA since its creation, and have never once been used, in spite of the paltry 1% of Oxbridge students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and the tiny percentage of state school pupils who win places there. Furthermore the supposedly terrifying and gargantuan measures Clegg promised to keep universities charging higher fees in check have been revealed to be a wishy-washy set of varied access programmes, from which the universities themselves will be allowed the freedom to pick and choose what will suit them best.
That this will cause an enormous amount of difficulty and confusion for students trying to work out which university to apply to is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with the scheme. Critics have universally condemned it, with Aaron Porter summing up the access measures as “a toothless regulator and a paltry scholarship scheme” that would “do little to offset the impact of vastly reduced investment and trebled tuition fees.”
So whilst Clegg continues to try to shift the blame onto top universities and shirks responsibility for his actions and the already flawed policy implemented by the coalition government, it seems more and more likely that the new system will turn into precisely the privatised, two-tier education fiasco campaigners have warned against since the start.