Tens of thousands of students in England have had their university applications thrown into utter confusion by chaotic last-minute revisions to tuition fees arrangements. When the government announced plans to allow tuition fees to rise to £9000 for the 2012 academic year, it originally specified that universities would have to provide full details of their planned fees and financial support by a deadline of April this year. Universities responded accordingly and fee levels were set, whereupon many prospective applicants began to compare different financial arrangements and courses to decide which universities to apply to.

Government Miscalculations

However, the government, having insisted that the top £9000 fee would only apply in “exceptional circumstances”, was forced to admit major budgeting mistakes when the majority of universities announced plans to charge the maximum fees, ruining their calculations, which had assumed an average fee of £7500. In order to attempt to rectify this, the government released a Higher Education White Paper in July, in which it introduced several major changes to university policy, effectively moving the goalposts for higher education finance three months after universities had announced decisions on tuition fees.

Higher Education White Paper

One major alteration set out by the White Paper was the government’s decision to withdraw 20,000 student places from the wider university system, which would then be made available only to institutions charging an average of £7500 or less for their courses. With state financial support withdrawn, universities will now depend almost exclusively on student fees for funding, so this was a major concern to higher education institutions, many of which have now announced that they are reconsidering the level of fees and bursaries they had previously set in April. The situation was further complicated by the government’s later announcement of yet another policy amendment, which proposed allowing universities to recruit unlimited numbers of students with AAB grades at A level.

University Turmoil

As a result, many universities have been thrown into financial turmoil, forced to reconsider the complex calculations that led them to set the level of tuition fees and to discuss making alterations to those arrangements. Consequently, young people all over the country are being forced to begin their UCAS applications with no concrete information about the levels of fees and financial support available at the universities they may wish to attend. National Union of Students Vice President Toni Pearce said “The government’s incoherent changes to higher education funding continue to wreak havoc and chaos on students and universities as Ministers realise that they failed to do their sums properly.” She went on to point out that “tens of thousands of applicants now face an anxious wait at an already stressful time”.

Poorest Students Worst Affected

More worrying still is the fact that the last-minute alterations may give universities the opportunity to withdraw some of the available bursary funding that had been previously approved by the already “toothless” regulator OFFA. Once again it is extremely likely that those worst affected by these chaotic changes will be poorer students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose university choices must depend on concrete knowledge of exact financial costs and support. As Pearce pointed out, “students looking to assess and compare what support will be available to them will be facing weeks of uncertainty and many will find that vital bursaries have been replaced with tokenistic fee waivers.” Whilst some students may be able to absorb the potential financial impact of this uncertainty, it is inevitable that many from the poorest backgrounds will simply be put off applying altogether. Just at the time when the government has the greatest responsibility to ensure that its fees policy does not have an adverse effect on equal access to education, it has dealt yet another blow to students from the poorest backgrounds trying to manage to apply to university.