Yet another gaping hole in the logic and legality of the coalition government’s tuition fees scheme was exposed this week. Nancy Quilliam, a London sixth form student, has chosen to take a gap year and so wants to defer her place at university for a year to enable her to work as a volunteer in Sierra Leone. However, the speed at which changes in funding and fees are being made and announced means that information about tuition prices and financial support is fluctuating and uncertain. The deadline for acceptance of offers for Miss Quilliam and others like her is 5th May this year, a full two months before the Office for Fair Access will formally approve or dispute tuition fees set by individual universities.
With 33,472 students choosing to defer places to take a gap year last year, this is likely to leave tens of thousands of applicants in the dark about important financial concerns as they are forced to make concrete choices about their university education. Imagine the anger of a student for whom finances are a major concern, who makes his university choice on the basis of projected tuition fee levels and is then forced to take up his place in September in spite of a change in price in July.
This problem, apparently completely unforeseen by ministers rushing to implement their controversial and much-opposed scheme, will inevitably have the greatest negative impact on students from poorer backgrounds who need to be able to compare specific financial support packages before deciding which institution they will be able to afford to attend.
The plans for tuition fees are appearing to be in greater and greater disarray, with Universities Minister David Willetts still insisting average fees will be £7500 in spite of the vast majority of universities already having declared their intention to charge the top price of £9000. Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to curb the rush to announce sky-high degree costs, Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned universities places may have to be cut to afford the expense if they all charge £9000. So not even the number of places available for 2012 is yet decided, leaving both deferring students and universities choosing how many places to allocate in a very difficult position indeed.
Lawyers acting on behalf of Miss Quilliam said: “it is extraordinary to expect people to make such a significant decision about their future and their financial liabilities without knowing the costs involved.” They demand that UCAS defer the deadline for deferral decisions until after the tuition fees and access arrangements for universities have been officially set in July. Whilst the government were cagey about their intention to intervene, the lawyers continued to attack the poorly laid foundations of the legislation, describing the problem as “the arbitrary unfairness of a scheme clearly implemented in a hurry”.
As Miss Quilliam’s lawyers pointedly suggest with the wording of their letter: “now the situation has been brought to the attention of the government”, one cannot help but wonder whether the government would have merrily continued with their plan, disadvantaging tens of thousands of students, had the flaw not been pointed out to them. It is merely a step further to begin to wonder what other gaping holes and inconsistencies may also exist below the surface of this troubled scheme.
The tuition fees fiasco is proving to be more and more of a thorn in the side of a government who now have time to regret at leisure their implementation of too many radical policies, too fast at the beginning of their incumbency.