National Student Union president Aaron Porter has revealed that his “behind the scenes conversations” with university executive committees across the country indicate that the majority will choose to charge the maximum £9000 tuition fees in 2012. The controversial coalition government’s policy to raise tuition fees is to replace withdrawn government funding due to enormous cuts to the education budget.
Throughout the debate, Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Universities Minister David Willetts have insisted that the upper limit of £9000 would only be charged by a few universities under “exceptional circumstances”, and would be subject to extremely strict measures to ensure that such universities were offsetting the higher fees with a broad and effective access program to support underprivileged applicants.
This new information from Porter suggests that these assurances may have been no more than a smokescreen blown by the government in an attempt to reconcile angry voters and protesters to the scheme, which has attracted a huge amount of controversy and opposition from across all sectors of society. Education institutions, campaign groups and protesters have all warned that the decision of the government to allow university tuition fees to be almost trebled could have devastating consequences for fair access to education, with a huge number of children from more underprivileged backgrounds no longer being able to make the move to university. If Porter is right, their doom and gloom prophecies may well come true.
These reports are especially worrying given the failure of the government to follow through on its planned rigorous access procedures, with the promising initial scheme of a year’s free state-funded tuition for the poorest students being scrapped in favour of allowing universities free reign to choose from a number of cushier, less-targeted access options. Allowing universities to choose their own access schemes is likely to result in the same problems we see at the moment, where elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge who claim to spend thousands of pounds on access programs nonetheless yield unimpressive results, with only a tiny percentage of such pupils going on to take up Oxbridge places.
Not only will such a large proportion of universities charging the maximum fees be catastrophic for access to education, it could also ironically render the government’s entire money-saving scheme defunct, as higher fees will mean higher loans being taken out by students, with longer repayment periods, putting a much greater financial strain on the public purse. A top UK think-tank has also proved that should future graduate earnings waver by only a few percentage points from the government’s predictions, the scheme would be “as likely to lose as to make money” overall.
Porter’s “behind the scenes” revelations suggest that universities will be reluctant to charge lower tuition fees, seeing the prices they set as an indication of the quality of education they provide, and with enormous public spending cuts to recoup, who can blame them? Whilst the government have tried frantically to quash Porter’s suggestions as scaremongering and guesswork, one cannot help but look at the facts.
Universities will now rely almost entirely on fees after the enormous government cuts – a strong incentive to charge the highest tuition fees they possibly can to retain financial stability. Figures out this week showed that an overwhelming 210,000 students missed out on university places this year – suggesting an enormous demand for places that must make most institutions feel fairly confident about filling their quotas regardless of how high they set their prices. And access measures wielded by the government as some sort of magic wand to restrict prices from getting too high have proved to be pathetically wishy-washy in development.
The temptation to rush out and join the protesters grows stronger by the day…