University Tuition Fees Explained
The Browne Review
The Browne review was an independent review commissioned by the government and headed by Lord Browne, tasked with working out a suitable and effective plan for future university funding. The review was published two weeks ago and recommended a withdrawl of state funding from universities.
In order for this income to be replaced for universities, the review recommended offsetting it by raising the 'cap' on tuition fees. This 'cap' was a limit on the amount of fees universities in England are allowed to charge for tuition, and until now had been set at £3290. The Browne review suggested lifting this cap altogether, allowing universities to set whatever fees they liked, which students would have to pay if they wanted to continute into higher education. Thus universities would be funded by students rather than the state.
Tuition fees rise to £9000
The government did not have to follow the recommendations laid out in the Browne review. After considering its contents, the coalition announced plans to raise university fees to at least £6000, with an upper limit of £9000 optional for universities who choose to charge more.
The government have tried to suggest that they are being more thoughtful of students than the Browne review recommended by introducing an upper limit for fees, but this is still three times higher than current fees.
The way tuition fees will work is that students take out a student loan to pay for their higher education, which they then have to pay back when they are employed after finishing their degree. Under current rules, students have to start paying this money back as soon as they start earning £15,000 per year, but the government plans to increase this to £21,000, another supposed measure to make the debt easier for students to cope with.
However the sheer amount of debt is likely to be so high (on average students are now expected to graduate with £40,000 of debt) that students may never actually manage to pay it off completely. This prospect of being in enormous debt for so many years is a very real problem in terms of being able to take out other loans or mortgages, so this is likely to have a severe impact on the already struggling housing market, with students finding themselves simply unable to get on the first rung of the housing ladder.
Even worse is the government's plan to penalise students who actually decide to pay off their debt early (by paying in larger amounts than the minimum payment per year required). This shows responsibility and hard work on the part of students planning to get out of debt as soon as possible by budgeting and trying to save up the money, yet the government actually plan to punish them for it with extra charges. The reason? Because those students paying off their debt early will have to pay less interest than others over the longer period they pay off their loan. What a way for the government to punish industrious, hard working students.
The Liberal Democrats
All this has caused great problems for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, because one of the main campaign issues their party ran during the election was a promise that they would abolish tuition fees, and that if any other party proposed raising them, they would do everything in their power to campaign, veto, and vote against it.
In fact many Liberal Democrat MPs even campaigned with a new and controversial 'right to recall' policy, where they promised their constituents would have the right to change their minds and vote them back out of power if they went back on promises they had made during the election. This is now proving to be a big problem as students are threatening to take advantage of this promise to try and oust them from their seats as a result of thier betrayal and abandonment of their pledges.
The most high-profile MP suffering from this problem is Nick Clegg. As Deputy Prime Minister he is in a very difficult position, with the Conservatives and David Cameron wanting to raise tuition fees. Though he has been put under a great deal of pressure and media scrutiny to come out against the increase in fees Mr. Clegg has not yet clarified his position, or commented on the breaking of his pre-election promises.
The National Union of Students
The National Union of Students, led by Aaron Porter, has been campaigning vigorously against the rise in tuition fees, claiming that it will have a desperately debilitating impact on students and is irresponsible of the government.
The NUS has organised mass protests which have been supported by other student protests at individual universities, including Oxford University, which organised a protest so strongly supported that Vince Cable, who was due to be visiting the city to give a speech that day, was forced to pull out and call off his trip.
Aaron Porter has been focusing the NUS campaign on the reversal of the Liberal Democrat position on tuition fees. He has threatened Nick Clegg and other MPs that students will not fail to "chase down" those who have abandoned their pre-election pledges. Using the MPs' own 'right to recall' scheme, he claims they will stand students in elections to replace these MPs.
Impact on universities
The impact on universities will be much worse than people might think. It is easy to hear that universities can charge higher fees and think that that will be good news for them financially. However, remember that the government funding for universities is being withdrawn, so in fact the increased tuition fees will mostly just be replacing lost state funding.
In addition universities will be faced with a less impressive academic pool of students to pick from, if we raise tuition fees so high that the students applying to higher education will be those who can afford to pay for a degree rather than those academically strong enough.
The government also risks creating a two tier system where some universities will be able to set higher fees and provide higher services for the richest students and others will be forced to reduce their fees and take on poorer students to whom they will be able to provide less high quality research and academic resources.
There is a great risk that less well known but still excellent academic institutions will suffer greatly as they will not be able to depend on the same level of fees as bigger universities and so will lose income and resources in spite of actually providing academic excellence.
Impact on students
Perhaps the most worrying thing of all about the proposed increase in tuition fees is the devastating effect it will have on students applying from disadvantaged areas and financially insecure backgrounds. Suddenly students have a great deal more to worry about than just essay writing! Over the past years millions of pounds worth of funding have been ploughed into 'access' to university for students from less priveleged backgrounds, yet young people from these areas still make up less than 5% of university places at the Russell Group of top 20 UK universities.
Similarly, the figure of state school students taking up places at top universities continues to hover around the 50% mark, even though these students make up an enormous 93% of school leavers.
Given that our top universities are clearly already financially biased, and the best education is already going to those who can afford it, it is terrifying to realise that by trebling the amount of money demanded for a university education, the government can only risk driving these figures to even greater extremes. The threat for poor students is devastating.
For further information on this appalling access problem and tuition fees in general, please, see my university fees blog