Tuition fees policy “shambolic”, “backfiring”, “a connoisseur’s cock-up”

There has been a renewed barrage of criticism of the government's tuition fees policy, which has been branded “a connoisseur’s cock-up”, “backfiring”, and “unfair and shambolic”.

There has been a renewed barrage of criticism of the government’s tuition fees policy, with commentators, experts and politicians variously branding it “a connoisseur’s cock-up”, “backfiring” – putting “a lot of children” from lower-income families off university – and “unfair and shambolic”. The remarks follow yesterday’s deadline for universities to submit their tuition fee plans to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

In today’s Financial Times, Sue Cameron writes:

“Talking of failures, coalition policy on tuition fees is becoming a connoisseur’s cock-up. First we were told that universities charging the maximum fee of £9,000 would be the exception. Now we find that most will be charging full whack. Nobody at the Treasury or the Business department had the wit to realise that high fees would be equated with high reputations.

“Rumour has it also that ministers initially thought that Offa – the Office for Fair Access – could set fees, which it cannot. Anyway, Offa is unlikely to take a tough line. It has only six staff – or the full-time equivalent – to deal with more than 130 unis. It may be able to borrow people from the Higher Education Funding Council but it will still tread carefully lest it be taken to judicial review.

“Of course, ministers could try to cut costs by cutting student numbers – but the political ramifications are horrendous.”

The Guardian quotes Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, the charity dedicated to improving educational opportunities for young people from non- privileged backgrounds and helping increase social mobility.

Sir Peter said:

“I think the government’s tuition fee policy is backfiring. We’re now seeing second- and third-tier universities charging the maximum amount. I think these fees are going to put a lot of children from low and middle-income homes off universities.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband, meanwhile, said student numbers could be cut by up to 36,000 – with the risk the entire system could end up losing money.

He said:

“This unfair and shambolic tuition fees policy is now unravelling. It will cost taxpayers more, it will cost students more and it may cost thousands of young people their university places.”

While the Telegraph reports:

“The number of degree places may have to be cut by a tenth as the Coalition attempts to plug a multi-million pound black hole created by its higher education reforms, specifically the cost of bigger student loans. Ministers had insisted that vice-chancellors would only be able to impose £9,000 fees in “exceptional circumstances”. But an analysis of universities’ plans yesterday showed that around two thirds intended to charge the maximum for all their courses.

“As the deadline for fee submissions for the 2012 academic year passed, 46 out of 70 English universities said they would demand the top level across the board, with a further six charging £9,000 for some courses. Poor students will be eligible for generous discounts. In last-minute submissions to the Office for Fair Access, Bradford, Bristol, Hull, Harper Adams in Shropshire, and Lincoln all announced plans to impose £9,000 fees – almost three times the current charge.”

Universities minister David Willetts, however, remains adamant the government’s policies will “save money” and “provide students with universities that are well funded and focused on teaching”.

He insists:

“If you look behind the headlines, the reality is that lots of students will not face fees anything close to £9,000 a year – including at the most prestigious universities. And of course, students don’t pay upfront and their monthly repayments as graduates are going to be lower than they are now. Financial means cannot be an obstacle to people fulfilling their academic and career goals…

“The fixation with the £9,000 figure has also concealed the extent of variability within individual universities and across the sector as a whole. London Met has proposed a range of fees, starting from under £6,000. Derby has currently capped its prices at £7,995, St Mary’s at £8,000, Portsmouth and Leeds Met at £8,500.

“And we should never forget the importance of competition by quality. Many parents and students will be worried about how many seminars they will get, what arrangements there are for work experience and how much coursework will be set. Universities will be publishing more data than ever before so that parents and students can compare performance and choose where to apply for accordingly.

“The money will go with the choices the student makes.”

Fine words; but as Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union UCU, explained on these pages yesterday, the reality is somewhat different:

The government is desperately hoping that OFFA will ride to its rescue, but the bottom line is that OFFA has no legal powers to regulate fees levels. It is a shame that no one in Number Ten or the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills took the time to listen.

We were by no means alone in raising concerns. Last month hundreds of Oxbridge academics warned the government that they were forcing universities to “fly blind” into an untested system of funding higher education.

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.

• See also: The economic madness of imposing £9k tuition fees – March 28th

Update 1415hrs:

The Guardian’s education correspondent Jessica Shepherd this lunchtime writes that all universities are to charge at least £6,000, with the average tuition fee more than £8,600:

“Ministers have suffered a major blow to their tuition-fee reforms after the government’s access watchdog revealed that all universities intend to charge at least £6,000 a year.

“The Office for Fair Access (Offa) announced that every one of the 123 universities and university colleges in England intend to charge £6,000 or more to full-time undergraduates from autumn 2012. A further 17 further-education colleges – out of 124 – want to charge fees of more than £6,000. Universities had until midnight on Tuesday to submit their plans to the watchdog.

“Offa would not say how many of the institutions want to charge the maximum fee of £9,000. However, research by the Guardian has revealed that almost three-quarters of English universities and university colleges intend to charge this amount for at least some of their courses…

“The Guardian’s figures show the average fee of those that have made their plans public currently stands at £8,629.73. Some 49 of the 73 universities intend to charge a flat rate of £9,000. Some 56 institutions intend to charge £9,000 for at least some of its courses.

“…new and old universities have announced plans to charge £9,000. In the last few days Bradford, Bristol and Hull universities have said they want to charge the maximum. Oxford Brookes and University of East London – neither of which are in the top 40 universities according to the Guardian’s university league table – intend to charge a flat-rate of £9,000; the University Centre at Blackburn College has decided to set its fees at £7,000.

“Some 73 out of 123 universities or university colleges have now publicly declared their fees. Some 50 others have given their proposals to Offa privately.”

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