£9,000 fees at Cambridge are just the first of many

News today that Cambridge University plans to put fees up to the maximum £9,000 as soon as the fee cap is listed will surprise no one, writes NUS president Aaron Porter.

Aaron Porter is the president of the National Union of Students (NUS)

News today that Cambridge University plans to put fees up to the maximum £9,000 as soon as the fee cap is listed will surprise no one. The shock would have come if they announced a level somewhere below the cap. Universities in the Russell Group maintain their enviable global reputations on prestige and not putting fees up to the limit would be akin to saying that they weren’t as good as an institution that charged more.

Companies in a market like the one the government have tried to introduce into higher education work on the principle that a higher price equates to better quality.

Those demonstrating the exclusivity of a Rolex, a Ferrari, or Eton don’t talk about winding mechanisms, horsepower or the number of text books per child but rather the cost and that principle has now migrated to our universities.

If you are Cambridge, or Oxford, or any of the other UK universities hoping for a place in the exclusive pantheon of the best universities in the world, your reputation is built on exclusivity, an exclusivity that disappears if you could charge more than you do.

In a properly managed and funded system the exclusivity of our best universities would be an exclusivity of talent not privilege but the government have chosen a system that actively encourages differentiation by price.

So, other universities will follow suit and charge the full £9,000. I imagine most if not all universities in the Russell Group will charge the top amount. As the plans for scholarship schemes and other routes to access for the poorest crumble, universities will publish shiny new prospectuses proudly displaying that they are part of the ‘£9,000 Group’.

Most will make overtures to widening access, as it appears Cambridge will do but these will do little to address the already huge gulf between the numbers of private and state educated students at these institutions and even less to stop it widening further as those from poorer backgrounds who are wary of the risk of taking on university debt opt for cheaper options regardless of talent or ambition.

Nick Clegg has made some interesting points about shifting the focus of entry requirements from simply being about A-level achievement to a variety of other factors which demonstrate the potential and experience of students from poorer backgrounds. Without proper oversight and careful implementation, however, the most exclusive universities will become even more exclusive and the lecture halls of Cambridge will even more closely resemble classrooms at Eton.

Higher education should be about talented and ambitious young people studying the course that matches their potential at the institution that suits their ambitions. Instead we will see the emergence of a two-tier system where students are studying at the institution that matches their wallets.

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