Cameron fails to retract claim regulator will be able to cut fees

David Cameron failed to answer Ed Miliband's questions on tuition fees and the fair access regulator at Prime Minister's Questions today, reports Shamik Das.

David Cameron failed to answer Ed Miliband’s questions on tuition fees and the fair access regulator at Prime Minister’s Questions today – and once again failed to admit that the Office for Fair Access (Offa) has no power to curb fees, a point he has repeatedly made in the past and which was further undermined at the weekend with Offa’s assistant director saying he had no plans to stop any university charging the fees they wish.

Here is a transcript of the key exchange:

Ed Miliband: “We know the majority of universities are proposing to charge £9,000 per year can the prime minister tell us how many of them, he expects, will have their proposed fees cut by the Office for Fair Access?”

David Cameron: “That decision will depend on the Office for Fair Access, but the honourable gentleman talks about broken promises the fact is it was the last government that introduced tuition fees and top up fees…”

Miliband: “Mr Speaker, once again he doesn’t answer the question. We know, we know from the Office for Fair Access that they are not going to cut the fees of the universities, the assistant director said at the weekend:

“We are not a fee pricing regulator; that is not our role. [If an institution wishes to charge a fee it has to have an accurate access agreement in place and we do have greater expectations the higher the fee.] We wouldn’t say to an institution we would only allow a fee of ‘X’ or ‘Y’.”

“So won’t the prime minister admit that on top of a broken promise not to raise tuition fees, and a broken promise that £9,000 would be the exception. He’s now breaking another promise on capping excessive fees.”

Cameron: “The fact is we are going to have to wait till July, until the access regulator, but let me make this point to the honourable gentleman: degrees haven’t suddenly started to cost seven, eight or nine thousand pounds, degrees have always cost that much, the question is who is going to pay for them? We say successful graduates should pay for them earning over £21,000 rather than taxpayers many of whom didn’t go to university…”

Watch the exchange in full:

Cameron last mentioned Offa as recently as the March 30th PMQs when he claimed, again falsely, again in answer to Miliband:

“…the Office for Fair Access will decide whether universities can go to that £9,000 threshold. Very tough rules have been published and placed in the House for people to see.”

Yet, in addition to the comments of Offa assistant director David Barrett last week, quoted by Miliband, as Left Foot Forward has repeatedly reported, the head of Offa, Sir Martin Harris, has said:

“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.”

Small wonder then that the coalition’s tuition fees policy was described last month as “shambolic”, “backfiring”, and “a connoisseur’s cock-up”.

• See also:

The economic madness of imposing £9k tuition fees – March 28th

The idea £9k fees would be the exception was always a pipe-dream – March 2nd

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