2 Nov 2010

University funding: coalition propose tuition fees cap

So tomorrow we get the government’s way ahead on university funding. The fundamental to remember is that they have massively, gigantically scaled back their own cash commitment to universities. They are proposing a way to fill the enormous black hole.

And they have come up with the following:

– you can charge below £6,000 fees a year … but if you choose to go above £6,000 you will be subject to “fair access conditions”, some sort of pressure to get more state school and poorer background students enrolled.

– there’s a cap, unlike the capless fees suggested by the Browne Review, of £9,000.

Universities haven’t enjoyed being stripped of nearly 80 per cent of their teaching grant (the press release from BIS at the time of the Spending Review slightly muddied the waters talking about a 40 per cent cut but that included student support grants).

But many will welcome the compromise deal as the only one in town. Plan B, which has been talked about in private by ministers, is reducing student numbers. They don’t want that.

Just how the “fair access conditions” are written could be a sore for Coalition relations. If you start imposing quotas on universities for taking pupils from poorer backgrounds you could see differential grade offers. Lib Dems might think that a useful innovation in social policy. Not many Tory MPs will. If you simply measure the money spent by universities in their recruitment drives in poorer areas and state schools the Lib Dems might think that’s just a sop without proper targets.

There are still rumours of a Lib Dem minister who is thinking of jumping over this. And there will be rebellion when the vote comes. There will be abstentions too. But it looks like the government will get its way and the system outlined above will come into force in 2012.

How long it will last, how long before the universities, particularly the higher performing ones, come back asking to raise the cap higher is another point. One Vice-Chancellor gave it three years. That’s clearly what Lord Browne’s team thought would happen.

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