Coalition continues being wrong, wrong, wrong on its own tuition fees policy

A look at the latest attempt by the coalition to bribe universities to lower tuition fees, and their history of being unable to predict the effects of policies.

The BBC is today reporting that thousands of students who’ve already applied to university could find that their fees have changed, under the government’s latest attempt to control the inflating cost of higher education.

Hannah Richardson writes:

Universities were required to submit their plans for higher charges, bursaries and fee-waivers for certain groups of students back in April. These were then assessed by the fair access regulator, Offa.

But because of delays to the government’s planned changes to higher education this was at least two months before the government published its proposals in a white paper.

That white paper (pdf) unexpectedly included a committment to:

The creation of a flexible margin of about 20,000 places in 2012/13 to support expansion by providers who combine good quality with value for money and whose average charge (after waivers have been taken into account) is at or below £7,500.

In non-BIS-speak, allowing universities who charged below £7,500 to take on extra students. This led to up to 28 universities changing their fees even after students had applied.

Why was the committement included? As Richardson explains:

This was widely seen as a last-minute measure to bring the overall cost of higher fees down for the government after it became clear that more universities than expected were planning to charge maximum fees.

This is just the latest in a string of desperate measures by the government to bring the cost of higher education down from the ludicrous heights to which their policies pushed it.

Firstly, they tried to claim that fees of over £6,000 would be the exception, rather than the rule.

For instance, Michael Gove said in November 2010 that:

We are going to ask the very best universities who want to increase their fees above £6,000 – but only to £9,000, it is important to stress that that’s the upper cap – that they work with us to demonstrate more imaginative ways in which they can ensure, working with schools, they will provide support for students from poorer backgrounds in going there.

That claim was quietly withdrawn, and replaced four months later with a higher number:

Financial modelling carried out by the Treasury suggested that universities would charge average fees of £7,500 next year.

Average fees of £7,500 with a cap of £9,000 requires at least half of all universities to charge over £6,000 – which is hardly the “very best”. This claim was doubtful even as it was made, with the Times (£) reporting that the average of the 40 universities which had already set fees was £8,700, just £300 below the maximum.

With all universities having set their fees, the average now stands at “only” £8,393 – and 58% of universities are charging the absolute maximum, £9,000.

In May, the government turned to the Office for Fair Access for salvation, with Cameron claiming that:

“…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.”

Unfortunately, Offa has no such powers, as Cameron should have known, given its own associate director had said so the week before:

“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’.”

The reason for the growing sense of panic on the part of the government is the economic madness that high fees will lead to:

Figures seen by Left Foot Forward show that, based on an assumed fee loan of £8,700, the additional public spending compared to the Treasury’s £7,500 average fee estimate will be £1.05bn over the spending review period.

In their final attempt to bring fees down, ministers are now reduced to bribing universities with the promise of extra spaces – just nine weeks before the application deadline. They have been wrong on the costs, wrong on the consequences and even wrong on how their own changes were going to be implemented; is there any more reason to trust them this time?

See also:

How the Cable/Willetts market in higher education ended up inflating feesDaniel Elton, July 12th 2011

Cameron fails to retract claim regulator will be able to cut feesShamik Das, May 4th 2011

Tuition fees policy “shambolic”, “backfiring”, “a connoisseur’s cock-up”Shamik Das, April 20th 2011

The government that didn’t do its homework – fees fiasco hits deadlineSally Hunt, April 19th 2011

Why Lord Browne has got his numbers wrongMatthew Pitt, October 13th 2010

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