The important and well-respected Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has released a damning assessment of the government’s white paper on higher education, focussing mainly on plans for university tuition fees to rise to £9000 from 2012. The report, which predicts the long-term impact of the new tuition fees scheme, attacked the plans on two fronts; suggesting that they would create an unfair, two-tiered system that would be disadvantageous to poorer students and also claiming that they simply would not work in the long-term, with many universities eventually being forced to return to lower fees.

The problems stem from the government’s early predictions that only a very few institutions would charge the highest fees of £9000, under what they described as “exceptional circumstances”. The decision of more than 75% of universities in England to charge the top rate has therefore played havoc with all aspects of the government’s plans, from budget predictions to equal access arrangements.

Financially, the HEPI report predicts that the Department of Education’s miscalculations will mean a budget shortfall of between £190 million and £490 million in taxpayer support for student loans.

In addition, it is suggested that social mobility will become an “unintended victim” of the new tuition fees system, as HEPI claims that only a small number of universities will realistically be able to continue charging fees of £9000 in the long-run. This is due to the last-minute government addition to the scheme that will allow universities to take as many students with AAB grades at A-level as they like, regardless of their student quotas. HEPI explains that universities will clamour to attract these students, with many forced to lower their fees in order to prevent losing out to their competitors. Hence, top quality institutions like Oxford and Cambridge Universities will be amongst a rare few able to maintain sky-high tuition fee prices as demand for places at such institutions is likely always to remain high. So, HEPI suggests a new two-tier system will emerge, with lower-quality institutions charging lower fees and providing students with lower incomes with a lower-quality degree with fewer resources and a less well-respected qualification achieved at the end.

To make matters worse, though the government promised generous bursary and scholarship schemes to support underprivileged students to cope with the rocketing fees in the new system, the HEPI report suggests that these funds are likely to be diverted by desperate institutions to a “needs blind” scholarship system aimed at attracting the highest achieving students rather than those most in need of financial support. Unfortunately, due to the bias already existing within the private-state school system, higher achieving students are vastly more likely to come from high income backgrounds, meaning that, once again, those from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose out.

Far from benefitting from any new policies or funding support, the report suggests that students from poorer backgrounds will even lose what small advantages they may have benefitted from in the current system. It explains that admissions tutors who may currently try to favour the application of a bright and promising state school student with slightly lower grades may now be prevented from doing so due to the new pressure to take only students with the highest possible A-level grades.

Both financially and socially, the report condemns the new tuition fees policy to failure.