The Coalition cannot afford to increase university fees

Leaks coming from inside former BP boss, Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding today suggest that will stay true to his big business background and suggest the Government raises the cap on tuition fees to £7,000 and subject universities and students to the perils of a market.

Leaks coming from inside former BP boss Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding today suggest that his final report will stay true to his big business background and recommend the Government raises the cap on tuition fees to £7,000 and subjects universities and students to the perils of a market.

It will come as no surprise that students, already facing the prospect of £25,000 of debt upon graduation, overwhelmingly object to an increase in tuition fees – but it would be mistaken to dismiss this as mere ungrateful grumbling.

Figures released as part of the NUS/HSBC student experience survey today show that 70 per cent of current students would have to reconsider going to university if fees were raised to Lord Browne’s £7,000 figure.

When top-up fees were introduced in 2006, students were told by politicians who had benefited from free university education that a tripling of their contribution would lead to real improvements and a better university experience. These improvements haven’t materialised and student satisfaction has remained static. And yet university heads are calling for the cap to be doubled again.

If there were ever a case of asking students to pay more for less, then this is it. Supposing that fees are forced up to £7,000, able and ambitious young people are staring at the prospect of an average £32,000 debt when they graduate, and a jobs market that is increasingly less friendly towards graduates, it is unsurprising that they will think again about whether the risk is worth it. And it will be poorer students, already the most risk-averse, who face being shut out.

NUS’ survey released today also shows that almost half of students receive financial support from friends or family, an increase of nearly 10% in just two years. The proportion of students in the lowest socio-economic group able to rely on this support has dropped dramatically in the last year whilst those in the highest groups are now more likely to lean on family to help cover university costs.

If fees are doubled the number relying on that support to be able to go to university will increase. When asked about increasing their contribution, two-thirds of students surveyed preferred alternative methods, such as some form of progressive graduate tax, to an increase in fees. Lord Browne has apparently failed to comprehend quite how discredited and widely unpopular the current funding system is, or to listen to Business Secretary Vince Cable’s clear statements on the need to replace the “poll tax” of top-up fees with a fairer alternative.

Fortunately, every single Liberal Democrat MP, including Vince Cable and Nick Clegg, have long opposed tuition fees and signed an NUS pledge to vote against any increase in fees and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative. Now that they are part of the Coalition Government, the public will hold them to the cast-iron commitments they have made on what is a totemic issue for both their party and their voters. Now in opposition, all leadership contenders for the Labour Party have indicated they would oppose higher fees, and 4 of the 5 appear to back a graduate tax.

The current system of top-up fees is unpopular, unfair, and unsustainable. Students cannot afford higher fees, universities have failed to make the case for them, and the Coalition Government will be heading for a split if they attempt to introduce them. Fees are quite clearly an idea whose time has passed and the sooner Lord Browne, government ministers, and university heads realise this, the sooner we can begin in earnest the real discussion of how to save our universities with a fair and sustainable funding settlement.

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