Despite promises from the Government that English universities would charge the maximum tuition fee of £9,000 from 2012 only in “exceptional circumstances”, the opposite now appears to be the case.
Universities and colleges in England have submitted the fees they intend to charge to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and their plans for attracting students from poorer backgrounds.
OFFA is the independent body which has to approve and monitor these so-called university access agreements. They will then report back by July. So far it appears that as many as three quarters will charge the full £9,000.
These include not only the elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, who had made their intentions clear from the outset, but even former polytechnics such as John Moore’s University in Liverpool. Other former polytechnics are charging just below the maximum. Leeds Metropolitan, for instance, has said it will charge £8,500.
In the meantime, London Metropolitan University announced that its fees would be an average of £6,850 but that in order to charge below the maximum they would be cutting nearly 400 degree courses, including history and philosophy.
The National Union of Students described the system as “increasingly a mess”. A spokesman said there had been no deterrent for universities to charge £9,000 but there had been “plenty of incentive”.
Interviewed on Channel 4 News, the Universities Minister, David Willetts, said that it was impossible to tell at the moment what the average fee would be, but the new system would be both fair and progressive.
“We are accepting that – because there will be graduates with low-paid jobs or out of the jobs market for whatever reason – for every £1,000 that we lend, there will be £300 that we will not get back – and that’s the correct decision,” he said. “That’s saying that if people aren’t able to pay back we don’t expect them to but if they are earning more than £21,000, only at that point do they start paying back.”
The Government now appears to be moving the goalposts by threatening to cut student numbers in order to contain the cost of the public purse. Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University
When Lord Browne published his review into higher education funding last October, he recommended removing the current £3,290 cap and letting universities charge what they like, although he also recommended putting a levy on all universities charging over £6,000 to offset the cost to Government of providing the finance for their courses upfront.
Who is charging what? Find out on the Channel 4 News tuition fees map
After an outcry from the universities, the levy was scrapped and instead of a recommended “market force” in which those failing to attract enough students would contract or fail, the Government has now kept control of the number of student places that will be available.
Crucially, it was the Coalition Government which set the maximum fee of £9,000 and the scrapping of the levy opened the way for universities to seize the opportunity and charge the maximum.
When we interviewed the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University last October, Professor Michael Arthur told us that he would have to charge £7,000 to “stand still” because of planned Government funding cuts. At the time, he thought it more likely that he would charge £8,000 and possibly a little more for medicine and dentistry. Like the others, the university is now planning to charge the maximum.
FactCheck: will graduates pay less, as Clegg promises?
The university has, however, outlined a package of financial support to help those from less privileged background, and it claims that one in three UK and EU graduates should qualify for some sort of support.
But Prof Arthur, in an open letter to staff, also accused the Government of “cage-rattling”. He said having removing 80 per cent of their teaching and learning funding and given universities the powers to set fees “at a level reflecting their mission and ambition, the Government now appears to be moving the goalposts by threatening to cut student numbers in order to contain the cost of the public purse”.
He is due to meet Downing Street’s education policy team and one of the Prime Minister’s advisers on education in order to discuss these issues further.
But half an hour away at Huddersfield University, they are unsympathetic to the institutions charging the maximum. They even went so far as to describe it as “profiteering” from students. They claim that their £7,950 fee will “ensure access for students from all diverse backgrounds”. In reality, it will make little difference to the amount the student has to repay. The estimate is that a student taking a three-year course at £6,000 will leave university with about £30,000 debt. At £9,000 that debt will rise to about £38,000.
Of course, there is a sliding scale for repayments: graduates will only start repaying their loans when their incomes reach £21,000. Each month graduates will pay back 9 per cent of their income and the interest rate will vary from zero for those on £21,000 up to 3 pre cent above inflation for those earning above £41,000. The debt will be cleared after 30 years if it has not been paid off.
A White Paper on the future of higher education has now been delayed while Ministers work out the implications of this new system. There have been warnings that it could leave a £1bn hole in the Government’s coffers because of the fact fees are loaned to students upfront. There is also one estimate that as many as 70 per cent of graduates will never repay their loan.
One unintended consequence of all this appears to be increasing numbers of students going abroad to study. Maastricht University in Holland said it has received an increased number of inquiries from prospective students, where it currently costs about 1,200 euros a year.