Cameron is wrong to suggest fees regulator has power to set levels

David Cameron is wrong to suggest the Office for Fair Access regulator will be able to set fee levels for some universities, as he did at PMQs today.

David Cameron is wrong to suggest the Office for Fair Access regulator (OFFA) will be able to set fee levels for some universities, as he did at Prime Minister’s Questions today. As Left Foot Forward reported in February, the head of OFFA, Sir Martin Harris, has said the regulator does not have the power to set legally-enforceable fee levels.

Sir Martin told a conference last month:

“The Treasury made assumptions, and one of the reasons for the delay in the letter of guidance to me… is that they thought that Offa was going to be in a position to have legal powers to impose certain fee levels.

“How they came to that view I cannot say because it was obvious to me from Day One that (OFFA) didn’t (have such authority). Now the government is in some difficulty in limiting expenditure to the levels that the Treasury has assumed.

“It would be fair to say that as of today, there isn’t a solution – but there will be a solution because, in the end, the Treasury always wins.”

While Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCUexplained on these pages the problems OFFA’s toothlessness would cause:

“Ministers are now aware of the lack of powers that OFFA has, which leaves them with a couple of problems. The government has done its financial modelling on universities charging an average fee of £7,500. However, if the average fee is higher than this then the government won’t have enough in the kitty to pay universities.

“This is because students pay the fees back after they graduate, at a higher rate of interest than they currently are charged, and the government stumps up the money up front. The other problem is that Liberal Democrat MPs are desperate that not all institutions charge high fees so it looks like the access agreements given to them as a sop for breaking their election promise to vote against fees was some kind of reasonable concession…

“The whole thing is a complete farce at present. Universities are essentially being told they cannot charge the fee they need to recoup money that government has cut, but at the same time that they must offer a better quality experience because students are paying higher fees…

“Unless the government looks again at its devastating cuts to teaching budgets, we will see even bigger class sizes and an inevitable drop in the quality of the student experience.

It is utterly ludicrous to expect universities to offer more for less, and quite ridiculous to encourage students to complain at a time when it is clear they are getting a raw deal.”

Earlier this week, Left Foot Forward reported on the economic madness of raising the cap to £9,000, with average tuition fees set to hit £8,700 – leading to an additional £1.05 billion cost over the spending review period compared to the Treasury’s £7,500 average fee estimate.

And tomorrow, Left Foot Forward will have reaction to the Higher Education Policy Institute’s report into university governance.

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