Tuition fees to skyrocket

Limits on tuition fees should be removed and universities allowed to charge fees as high as they wish, the government-commissioned Browne Review of higher education funding reported today. The report explicitly endorses creating an open market in the university sector, potentially charging wildly variable amounts for different courses in different universities.

The report also proposes scrapping government funding for “non-priority” subjects, such as arts and humanities, raising the spectre of entirely science-based universities, or government-subsidised science degrees costing less than non-subsidised arts degrees.

“A market in course prices between universities would increasingly 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,” said Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students.

“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. Universities have not made the case for what they would do with more,” he added.

Warwick Students’ Union echoed these sentiments. In a statement, the SU said: “The Browne Review’s proposals are a slap in the face for students and their families. By completely removing the cap the plan would unleash a market in Higher Education which would inevitably lead to students making choices about their future based on their parental income and not their academic ability.

“In line with emergency policy passed just before the outcome of the Review, Warwick Students’ Union will lobby to ensure that all changes enacted by the University are made with student consultation. Warwick SU absolutely opposes any rise in the fees level for undergraduates and will fight hard to ensure that Warwick remains a place where those from low income backgrounds can afford to study.”

The National Union of Students and the lecturers’ union University and College Union (UCU) are planning a joint demonstration against the proposed changes for 10 November in London. Warwick SU and Warwick UCU are sending several coaches from Warwick to London for the demonstration – students interested in attending can sign up on the SU website.

Despite opposition from student leaders, the Government has indicated its support for the proposals.

“As a strategic direction the government believes the report is on the right lines,” said Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, responding to the report in the House of Commons today. It remains to be seen exactly how much of the report will make it into legislation, but Cable’s response shows it is likely that many of its recommendations will be taken into account.

The report’s recommendation of higher fees will be fiercely opposed by many Liberal Democrat MPs, and may threaten the stability of the coalition government. Prior to the election, all sitting Lib Dem MPs signed a National Union of Students pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, though the coalition agreement only allows them to abstain. It appears as though many Liberal Democrats will break their pre-election pledges. “I signed that pledge with my colleagues,” Cable said. “In the current financial situation … which we inherited, all pledges, all commitments, will have to be reexamined from first principles.”

Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor, Nigel Thrift, also endorsed the proposals as the only option left to cash-strapped universities.

“Clearly we can expect that the Comprehensive Spending Review will include deep cuts in the funding of England’s universities,” he said. “These cuts will pose a significant challenge for our sector, particularly as it has long been accepted that the Higher Education system is actually in need of substantially more investment rather than cuts.

“Currently Universities have few, if any, options available to them to cope with such a significant cut other than the option outlined in the Browne review.  Many commentators expect that Universities will have little choice but to charge an undergraduate student fee of at least £6000 simply to cope with the expected cut in University funding.

“Many institutions will not be as able to charge a fee level that would cover their reduced funding and will face stark choices. Universities such as Warwick that are able to raise fees, if required to do so, will become more self funded than ever.”

Despite the apparent rise in income for universities which would follow implementation of the Browne report’s recommendations, the Government’s upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review is set to call for drastic cuts to university sector funding. VC Thrift is expecting a fall in Warwick’s income from central government from 22 percent to 15 percent of the University’s total income. Because of these cuts, it is likely that universities would still see a net loss of income despite even a doubling of the current rate of tuition fees.

Although Cable said today that the Government is considering capping fees at around £7,000, the report, if implemented in full, would theoretically allow universities to charge even as high as £25,000 a year. It does, however, propose a levy on universities charging above £6,000, with proceeds from that levy contributing to a fund for supporting students from lower incomes, effectively limiting universities’ incentives to charge over £6,000.

The current higher education funding arrangement was designed along similar lines to Browne’s proposals, though the current proposals are much more far-ranging and radical. When fees were first introduced, the Labour government hoped to create a market in which different universities charged different fees, up to the proscribed limit. However, it is generally agreed that the limit was set too low, and nearly all universities charged the maximum amount allowed. It remains to be seen whether the Browne review’s plans will result in variable fees between universities or all universities charging similar amounts, up to the limit of what is profitable for them.


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