Former BP Chief, Lord Browne, has stated that the cap on university tuition fees should be lifted entirely and universities should be free to set unlimited fees for their courses. The cap, set by the Labour Government at £3,290 already leaves the average graduate with almost £10,000 worth of debt from tuition alone, excluding costs of living and hidden costs of university such as books and transport.
The review threatens dissent in the coalition ranks after the Liberal Democrats categorically stated their opposition to increases in tuition fees during the general election. The coalition agreement allows Lib Dems to abstain from the vote though prior to election they pledged that they would actively campaign against increased fees. If the Liberal Democrats meekly abstain or back down to Tory power in this, a core campaign principle, their position in power will appear merely nominal. The NUS have claimed that nearly 30 Lib Dem backbenchers are prepared to rebel by voting against the government over a rise in tuition fees.
Browne said there should be ‘no single fixed price’ for tuition fees as different courses cost different amounts. Institutions will simply have to persuade students that the fees they charge represent value for money. ‘Institutions are all different and they provide a wide range of different courses. We want this diversity to flourish.’ He said.
However Browne has also said that the government should be given scope to remove funding for all but ‘priority’ subjects such as medicine, science, engineering and modern languages. This is in aid of attaining a ‘closer fit between what is taught and the skills needed in the economy’. Teaching grants offered to departments by their university may be threatened by such prioritizing with non-priority subjects being sidelined when it comes to distributing funds. The requirement for teacher training for academics threatens to encourage burgeoning university bureaucracy that will eat up funds that would be better placed in teaching budgets.
Browne has talked at length about how the changes will empower young people and place them in the driving seat of higher education. ‘Word gets around’ he said, ‘If you go to a university where they don’t do anything for you, people will get the point and not go.’
Prospective students will not be reading this news and punching the air in victory now that they can control the ‘free market’ of university education. Rather the dark feeling of despair of ever being able to afford the future they want will begin to settle in the minds of this generation. As graduate debt increases, graduate schemes remain pared back, youth unemployment at a high and an ever fewer number of first-time property buyers the UK appears a grim place to be a young person trying to build a future.
In reality it is the big graduate recruiters who will control the market of education as it will be they who drive demand for certain degree streams and offer the salary that enables the government to get back their investments. Universities will no longer be a place for education in the broadest sense but rather a supporting structure for British industry.
Universities will charge the fees they believe they can command but through encouraging their students to behave as consumers there may be far reaching implications. In recent years some students have taken their university to court in an attempt to sue them for being miss-sold a degree that claimed to offer an education or job prospects that it did not attain in practice. Given the limited contact time offered on several degree courses, often less than 5 hours a week and taught by post graduates as opposed to professors, how many students will believe they have got value for money.
NUS president, Aaron Porter, said: ‘If adopted, Lord Browne’s review would hand universities a blank cheque and force the next generation to pick up the tab for devastating cuts to higher education. The only thing students and their families would stand to gain from higher fees would be higher debts.
‘A market in course prices between universities would increasingly put pressure on students to make decisions based on cost rather than academic ability or ambition. Those already feeling the pinch will clearly be unwilling to take such a gamble and face being priced out of the universities that would opt to charge sky-high fees.
‘There is no clear assurance that a hike in fees would improve student choice or quality and the evidence since fees tripled four years ago shows that neither student satisfaction nor quality has improved.’
According to the review, universities that choose to charge over £6,000, almost double what students pay currently, will be subject to a tapered levy which will be used to cover the cost to the government of providing students with upfront finance. The university would get to keep a diminishing proportion of fees over £6,000: 94% of the first £1,000, 89% of the second, 85% of the third etc. Browne has said that this levy will ensure that those who charge the most contribute more to supporting poorer students. This may be less than will be needed to replace the current public funding
Browne has said that graduates should start repayments once they earn £21,000, a much higher salary than the current repayment bench mark of £15,000. The interest rate at which graduates repay their loans will be increased from the subsidised rate of 1.5% to match the governments cost of borrowing: inflation plus 2.2%. Students earning under £21,000 will have their loan balance increase in line with inflation which means that they will accrue no interest until they become able to repay. Debt will be written off by the government after 30 years, 5 years later than the period after which it is currently wiped.
Browne has also advocated a 10% increase in university places to meet demand and no cap on numbers of students at a university, allowing popular universities to expand whilst others may be forced to contract. Part time students will be entitled to the same help with tuition fees offered to their full time counterparts and will no longer pay fees up-front, paying them when they graduate instead.
Universities are to issue ‘student charters’ that provide prospective students with information on employment rates for their courses and schools must provide individualised careers guidance for their pupils administered by a certified profession. Decisions made about which course to take and what university to attend will have even weightier implications for young people who must now make a gravely serious investment in their future. Careers advice in some schools is abysmal, consisting of a computer based multiple choice test that invariably advises you to become a teacher of whatever subject you claimed to have enjoyed or offers totally obscure career choices such as embalming or puppet making. Careers advice will help students to assess what they want from university but poorer students will inevitably be required to lean towards cheaper institutions rather than face crippling debt whilst the wealthy have the freedom to buy the education they desire.
If Browne’s review is taken up in full all students would be entitled to flat-rate maintenance loans of £3,750 per year, rather than the current system, where loan sums are means tested. Maximum maintenance grants available to students from households with incomes of less than £25,000 would be increased from £2,906 to £3,250. The upper threshold under which students receive partial maintenance grants would rise from £50,020 to £60,000. Universities will no longer be required to provide the minimum bursary of £329 a year for students on full grants, the funds will be distributed through the grants system.
Such a mammoth hike in fees risks creating a two tiered education system, where a ‘good degree’ can be bought by the wealthy and the poor are priced out of the country’s best universities. The back-lash will no doubt be extreme and it remains to be seen whether the coalition government will take up this Labour authorised independent review. The Conservatives, defenders of private education and privilege may find little wrong with these changes but it remains to be seen if the liberals will be able to swallow this bitter pill in the name of power.