Fees feud intensifies as HE review draws near

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Tuition fees should be raised to between £5,000 and £7,000 per year, a report by Universities UK has recommended. The group, that represents the heads of all the UK’s universities, claims that the increases are necessary if higher education in the UK is to weather the tumultuous financial circumstances it faces, both in the short term and in years to come.

The surge in support for increased fees is largely a result of the global economic crisis. Universities across the country have been hit hard, with the value of their investment portfolios tumbling and their business links withering; donors are increasingly unwilling and unable to fund professorships and research. Ordinarily rich lodes of funding have dried up, and government measures to assist ailing institutions have been used necessarily to plug holes rather than for any meaningful investment.

The move comes as the government has announced a freeze in the number of university places for undergraduates, capping the total number of places at an artificially low level. Combined with the increased number of university applications this year, around ten per cent of university applicants could be left without places—at a time when the job market is at its most bleak and competitive. The threat of fines for universities who over-recruit has exacerbated the issue, with crash-strapped institutions under-recruiting rather than risking potentially multi-million pound fines for taking on extra students. As a result, an estimated 180,000 students will this year miss out on university places, an increase of almost 50,000 compared to last year.

As public funding dries up, and the number of university applicants falls, the responsibility for making up the funding shortfall must, Universities UK stressed, fall upon individual students. “The only source of future funds, whatever the colour of government, is the individual in the long term,” said Universities UK president-elect Professor Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. The report found that the median figure needed for universities to remain financially sustainable would be £6,500–over double the current cap.

Raising the cap to these levels would, the report admitted, likely see a reduction in the number of university applicants; demand would fall, particularly from low income households, as tuition fees rose above £5,000 per year. A survey by the BBC, however, revealed that two thirds of university vice-chancellors would like to see the cap raised even further, to between £4,000 and £20,000—almost seven times the current levels—despite  the fact that Universities UK acknowledged that its proposals would disadvantage students from poor backgrounds.

“Debt averse students are less likely to enter higher education than those who are debt tolerant,” the report admits, “and students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds have been found to be more debt averse than their wealthier counterparts.” 59 per cent of students from poor urban areas, the study found, had been heavily influenced by the prospect of heavy debts when deciding whether to enter higher education.

Unsurprisingly, the decision to recoup this monetary shortfall by targeting students is one that has met with steadfast resistance from the National Union of Students. NUS National President Wes Streeting decried the move as “breathtaking arrogance”, and promised a concerted, nationwide response from the organisation’s membership.

“At a time when all the pundits are predicting record levels of unemployment,” Streeting said, “it is scandalous that vice-chancellors assume they can pass more of the cost of higher education onto students and their families.”

Last month, the NUS led a march on Westminster to protest any increase in tuition fees, and the organisation has tabled a parliamentary motion to discuss the proposals. It has also proposed an alternative to tuition fees, a system it regards as “unsustainable”, in which the state, individuals and employers shared the burden of paying for higher education. This would avoid both the current situation, in which student debt is expected to reach £48 billion by 2013, and the proposed increase.

It was revealed last month that the average salary for a university vice-chancellor was £194,000—about the same as that of the Prime Minister. Including pensions, several earned as much as £300,000. “We have awarded ourselves enormous great pay rises out of student fees,” David Sweeney, director of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England said, “and we haven’t spent the money on providing high quality student experience.”

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