With the arrival of the Office for Fair Access deadline for the submission of tuition fees, it is finally possible to see a clear overview of the fees situation across English universities. Whilst some wrangling continues over exact estimates and averages, and alterations may be made in accordance with OFFA demands in July, the dust has finally settled and some definite conclusions can finally be drawn.

Government Miscalculations

The Times Higher Education magazine has worked out from the tuition fees declared so far that the average cost of an undergraduate degree will be £8723.33 per year from 2012, far higher than the government’s estimated £7500, on which plans for financing student loans have been based. Many universities fear that this may result in a “black hole” in state higher education funding, forcing ministers to make still more cuts to university budgets further down the line.

Filling The Void

Many protesters have asked how on earth the government could have made such a huge mistake in their miscalculations, as universities have clearly shown that charging a minimum of £8000 tuition fees is required simply to replace funds lost through state cuts to their teaching budgets. The further £1000 is necessary to comply with the mandatory extra OFFA access arrangements for those charging fees above £6000. Far from being greedy or profiteering, as panicking ministers have at times attempted to imply, universities are in fact merely trying to keep their budgets on an even keel.

“Exceptional Circumstances”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Universities Minister David Willetts have come under particularly heavy fire from the media and those in opposition to the scheme, as their insistent claims that universities would only charge above £6000 under “exceptional circumstances” have been completely blown out of the water.

A “Toothless Regulator”

Many fear that the reason for so many universities boldly going ahead and charging the maximum £9000 tuition fees is the lack of any threat of ramification from “toothless” regulator OFFA, which has imposed a vague scheme of various options for access measures and will not implement targets for university uptake of underprivileged students.

Lost Courses

Many universities are being forced to axe less vocational courses in the fear that the new breed of consumer-student will be expecting value for money and investing in courses that lead to a more definite employment path after graduation as a result of the enormous rise in tuition fees. With the government threatening to axe unfilled places, keeping unusual and minority courses available is simply not an option for many universities in this new, cutthroat marketplace, where education is suddenly being valued and sold as a commodity.

London Metropolitan University alone is to cut its portfolio of courses by an overwhelming two thirds, reducing the overall number of course options from 557 to 160, simply to ensure financial survival when the new tuition fees scheme comes into practice in 2012.

Fewer University Places

In a desperate bid to control the potential financial disaster created by their miscalculation of average fees, the government has begun to threaten universities with the prospect of axed university places in order to reduce the burden of student loan lending.

Higher Loan Repayment Interest

The government will also cash in on extra interest being added to student loans from 2012, with interest set several percentage points higher than the current rate which increases only with inflation. Whilst they have trumpeted longer repayment periods as a great advantage of the new scheme, this will in fact result in some graduates paying back up to £85,000 in cash terms.

Average Tuition Fee Disagreements

There has been some criticism from both sides of the argument on the figures being cited for the average tuition fees. Protesters to the higher tuition fees argue that if the average fee were calculated by adding up the cost of each individual place the figure would be even higher, as most of the highest charging universities have a greater number of places than those offering lower fees.

The government, on the other hand, hope to give powers for granting degrees to Further Education Colleges where students currently study for courses like the BTEC. These will charge much lower fees than universities, resulting, they say, in lower average fees. They also claim that once scholarships and bursaries are taken into account, the average fee actually paid by a student will be brought down below the average full price tuition fee, easing the burden on state funded student loans.

Impact On Access

Heavy opposition has been voiced to the new tuition fees scheme since its initial announcement, with enormous protests and marches of half a million people taking place to raise awareness of concerns. Many of these centre on the impact the new fees will have on fair access to university for students from poorer backgrounds and state schools.
It is generally acknowledged that the trebling of tuition fees will introduce a formidable “psychological barrier” to applicants from lower income households, in spite of government protestations that fees will only be repaid after graduate employment is achieved and an annual salary of £21,000 is being earned.

Campaigners are particularly concerned about the double impact of the raising of tuition fees coinciding with the government’s decision to axe vital programs for access to education such as the Aim Higher scheme and the Education Maintenance Allowance.

Although universities will outline scholarship and bursary schemes as part of their higher fees packages, one such proposal from Bristol University lists the very lowest fee reduction, for pupils from households of income below £15,000 resulting in annual tuition costs of £3500, still higher than the current level of tuition fees.

Future Effects

We will have to wait until students have chosen their university places in 2012 before the first solid conclusions may be drawn about the social, economic and academic impact of the new tuition fees system. However, fears are high that the trebled prices and the creation of ‘budget degrees’ at further education colleges is likely to result in a two-tier, economically driven higher education system reminiscent of the old university-polytechnic divide.

There is a strong possibility that many universities may become bankrupt or fail to offer arts-based and non-vocational courses altogether, whilst protesters fear we may see a drastic drop in the percentages of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds taking up places at university at all.

Most tragic of all, experts have warned that should graduate income vary by as little as 3% from the government’s calculated projections, the entire scheme will fail to make any material financial difference anyway, rendering the entire project completely unnecessary.