The worst case scenario feared by students across the country was confirmed this week when the coalition government unveiled plans to raise university fees to £6000 with an upper limit of £9000. Government ministers have tried to mask the abandonment of the education system by state funding as a positive move for universities, claiming it will give them “extra freedoms and less bureaucracy”. Extra graduate debt and less state support would be a much more accurate summation.

University Impact

In spite of their flimsy claims that the rise in tuition fees will bring a “focus on high quality teaching”, the decision is actually likely to have a hugely negative impact on the academic quality of universities in England and will be a huge blow to the standard of their research and teaching. The millions of pounds worth of funding withdrawn by the government in the spending review will only just be offset by the enormous new fees piled onto student backs, meaning no real increase in quality, as overall university income will not be greatly altered.

What universities will experience however, is the damaging emergence of an unstable system where degrees are valued and bought according to the public opinion of academic quality and students apply to the institutions they can afford to attend rather than those best suited to their intellectual ability.

Russell Group Response

The Russell Group of leading UK universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, unsurprisingly welcomed the meteoric rise in fees, safe in the knowledge that there would still be ample demand to fill their allocation of places regardless of the price they choose to set. Yet they may come to regret their enthusiasm at a later date when they are faced with a pool of applicants who may be financially able but will inevitably be less academically gifted than current students. It may take a few years for the effects to begin to show but there can be no doubt that setting fees at such an astronomically high level must reduce the number of qualified candidates able to apply. It is certain that the Russell Group universities will fall further and further behind their international competitors as a result of the implementation of this scheme, only adding to the incentive for the brightest UK students to move abroad to study and subsequently to work.

In the meantime less well-known universities face a much more uncertain future, with a dependence on tuition fees rather than secure state funding signalling an inevitable reduction in the quality of teaching and academic research, as institutions are forced to scale back without guaranteed income levels.

Some commentators are celebrating this ‘streamlining’ of higher education, which they predict will rid the system of ‘free riders’ and ‘unnecessary’ or ‘frivolous’ courses, yet it is extremely naïve to suggest that the effects will be so targeted or positive. Smaller, high-quality institutions and intelligent, hard-working but financially disadvantaged students are much more likely to be the real victims. Indeed the types of students described as ‘free riders’ who attend university for a partying period of drinking and debauchery without intent to work hard or graduate to a useful job afterwards, are exactly the demographic who are likely to be able to continue to afford a place after tuition fees have been raised!

Liberal Democrat Disaster

Video coming soon.

After the universities themselves and the prospective students who now face a choice between graduating with up to £40,000 worth of debt or foregoing university altogether, the biggest losers in this situation have been the Liberal Democrats. Many newly elected MPs including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg are fighting to keep their jobs and salvage the credibility of their whole party in the face of their drastic abandonment of their pre-election pledges.

Having promised students “we will resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting of that cap” and see “tuition fees removed”, Nick Clegg now faces the wrath of many young voters who put their confidence in him only to see a coalition government turn round and stomp all over their pledges. Student groups across the country, led by the National Union of Students, are now threatening to “chase down” MPs who have reneged on their promises, using their own “right to recall” scheme to foist them from their seats for their betrayal.

It does seem rather despicable for the Deputy Prime Minister, who during the election condemned what he termed the “deadweight debt” of £24,000 faced by many students as unacceptably debilitating, to turn around now he is in power and go along with the decision to almost double that figure.