Poorest students will be considerably worse off under new system

The new access agreement is a political fig leaf to cover up a government busy destroying our education system and the hopes and aspirations of students and their families.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

When pushing hard to persuade Liberal Democrat MPs to break their pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in fees, coalition ministers made much of the access agreements that any institution wishing to charge more than £6,000 would have to sign, which they said would ensure access for poorer students. Ministers also trumpeted the fact that any institution that breached or failed to deliver its access agreement would face a fine of up to £500,000.

Along with details of the agreements announced yesterday, there was also more on a scholarship programme designed to help students from the poorest backgrounds. Looking first at the scholarships, and leaving to one side the fact they are a tacit admission higher fees will put poorer students off, students from the poorest backgrounds will actually be considerably worse off under the new system.

Under the current system, students from poorer backgrounds do not have the millstone of tuition fee debt around their necks when they graduate, because their fees are, in the main, covered by grants and bursaries. Under the new system the scholarship money they receive will go nowhere near covering their fees, leaving them with a considerable bill on graduation.

Moving on to the access agreements. There was no mention of the fines in yesterday’s press release from the business department and let’s not forget that we had strong words about universities’ obligations to improve social mobility when fees originally came in and OFFA was established in 2004. The vast majority of the Russell Group universities are failing to meet the targets set for them, but no institution has ever been sanctioned.

The government’s claim that institutions would only charge fees higher than £6,000 a year in exceptional circumstances is entirely bogus. Every single English institution with undergraduates will have to charge more than £6,000 just to plug the funding gap the government has created by slashing the teaching budget. The average fee will need to be £6,863.

All the government has done is tinker with a failed system that cannot mask its systematic removal of access to education. The entire landscape of higher education will change under the new system. Shifting the burden of paying for a university education from the state to the student will not generate the extra funds universities need, nor will it provide an enhanced experience for the individual student.

The public are not stupid and they will soon see the access agreements for what they really are – a toothless bribe to give some Liberal Democrat MPs an excuse to break the pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees. When put alongside the abolition of the EMA, fees, cuts in funding and cuts in jobs it is even clearer that the access agreement and scholarships are pathetic responses and merely political fig leaves to cover up a government busy destroying our education system and the hopes and aspirations of students and their families.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.