Lord Browne’s report applies only to universities in England. So what’s the situation elsewhere in the UK? Channel 4 News investigates the system in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Fees in Wales and Northern Ireland are currently the same as England – up to a maximum of £3.290 a year. But until now, Welsh students who study in Wales have been able to apply for a grant, worth up to £1,890, towards their fees.
The situation in Scotland is radically different. Tuition fees were abolished there in 2000 for all Scottish students, although students from England who study there pay a lower charge – £1,820 for most courses, £2,895 for medicine. However – given the likelihood of swingeing cuts to Scotland’s budget as the Westminster Government slashes spending across the board – there are fears that the promise of free education for all may not be sustainable for long.
The Scottish Government is putting out its own Green Paper on higher education funding before the end of this year. They’ve called for a ‘Scottish solution’ – and they’ve pledged to ensure that “all sensible ideas, no matter how radical, are given a chance to be aired. Only one measure has been ruled out – tuition fees.
The Scottish Conservatives want students to be charged variable fees, which would be paid back by graduates once their earnings pass a certain threshold.
Labour’s also backed calls for some kind of contribution – and the National Union of Students in Scotland is consulting its members on the idea of a graduate tax – which the NUS in England already supports.
When the Scottish National Party took power three years ago it abolished student payments to the “graduate empowerment scheme” – where graduates previously paid a contribution of just over £2,000 towards bursaries for future students.
Critics complained the flat rate was unfair – because high earners were charged the same as lower-income graduates.
Change is inevitable
But some kind of change is inevitable: as university leaders in Scotland admitted last night they would be directly affected by Lord Browne’s report. Their predicament was explained yesterday in The Scotsman by Sir Andrew Cubie, who authored the review into Scotland’s higher education funding which first led to the scrapping of tutution fees.
He warned that English and Welsh universities would benefit substantially from charging far higher fees – opening up a funding gap with their Scottish counterparts. And that, he said, would mean “significant dangers for higher education in Scotland” – especially given the likelihood of yet more spending cuts. Some kind of graduate contribution, then, seems inevitable – even if it doesn’t involve up-front fees.