An independent commission on tuition fees has been created with the purpose of analysing the results of the new, higher university fees, particularly on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The panel will be led by Will Hutton, a Grammar school and Bristol University graduate who went on to become Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University. Hutton is likely to be thorough and acutely aware of the problems faced by students from poorer backgrounds, with a history of journalism (he was editor-in-chief of the Observer) and several detailed political books to his name.

Focus on underprivileged students

Hutton told the BBC News website “It is incredibly important that we provide an independent check on the biggest reforms for higher education in a generation.” He stressed the importance of the commission’s independence, stating “we will be keeping an open mind…to produce a dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the data.” The data he is referring to is detailed information to be released by UCAS on university application figures. But will this be enough? Considering Hutton’s own insistence that the commission should focus on “particularly looking at what impact higher fees have on prospective students from less privileged backgrounds”, one hopes that some more detailed collection of data from within those communities might also be considered.

Time for such extra research is likely to be tight however, with the commission’s first report due in just six weeks, causing some commentators to wonder just how deep an analysis will be possible in such a short time.

Tuition Fees Impact

The introduction of the new tuition fees, which have been raised to a maximum of £9000, saw a decline in applications from UK students, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds and mature students reported to be worst hit. It is hoped that the new commission will go some way towards securing vital evidence of this impact in order to pinpoint flaws in the new system, instigating the equal access initiatives required to rectify the problems.

Commission Panel

The other members of the commission have been announced as Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, UCL economics professor Stephen Machin and broadcaster Libby Purves. The inclusion of Sir Lampl will be encouraging to many who were critical of the raised fees policy, as the Sutton Trust education charity is known for its incisive investigation and commentary on education policy and its vociferous criticism of right-wing strategies. When Cameron considered making extra university places available for those who could pay for them in May last year, Lampl immediately criticised the “blow to social mobility” the move might cause, stridently proclaiming that the “better-off” should never be allowed to “buy advantage in the university system.”

So if there is evidence of the raised tuition fees having an adverse impact on prospective students from less advantaged backgrounds, it seems likely that the commission will highlight it. What will then occur as a result of their findings is less clear, and it can only be hoped that they will be taken seriously by a government who have so far failed to respond to high-profile criticism and analysis of the new fees system.