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Lord Mandelson yesterday gave what is possibly the strongest indicator yet that the government is planning to raise the cap on tuition fees.
Speaking to vice-chancellors the Business Secretary praised the current fees system as being a “radical and signal success”, but warned that difficult decisions lay ahead. Britain, he said, has to “face up” to paying for a higher standard of university.
“I do not believe that we can separate the issues of fees, access and student support,” he said in a key-note speech. “ Any institution that wants to use greater cost to the student to fund excellence must face an equal expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just those with the ability to pay.”
But the University and College Union (UCU) has warned that high fees would be “about as popular as the poll tax with hard working families.”
Sally Hunt, UCU general sectary said: “In a time of recession the government should be considering how to make access to education cheaper, not giving a green light to universities who wish to charge higher fees.”
Mandelson’s speech comes as both Labour and the Conservatives are looking into increasing tuition fees to £7,000 a year. The government is currently under legal obligation to review the system, but according to Mandelson a final decision is unlikely until after the general election.
The general consensus between Vice-chancellors is that £7,000 remains the most practical figure to maintain high standards of education whilst not alienating students from poorer backgrounds.
One unnamed vice-chancellor told The Times: “A simple rise in the cap to £7,000 could be put through soon after this election and it would have the advantage of letting the government cut the amount it puts into universities.” But according to Hunt, the maximum bursary a university would have to fund would be £700. That would leave the poorest students needing to find an extra £3,394 a year.
The 1994 group, which represents research universities and of which Lancaster’s Vice-chancellor Paul Wellings is chair-elect, has welcomed the Business Secretary’s comments. Last month Professor Wellings said the government faced a “clear choice” between cutting student numbers or finding more funding for higher education. Responding to Mandelson’s speech, the Vice-chancellor said: “”The 1994 Group strongly agrees with Lord Mandelson that the current system of variable fees has ‘been a radical and signal success in strengthening the resources available to universities without sacrificing accessibility to students.”
“Fees have generated more resources which have transformed and modernised university estates, retained and attracted top staff and allowed universities to develop significant access bursaries for students to widen participation […] Widening access and encouraging social mobility is at the heart of the founding vision of many 1994 Group universities.”
Only last week the Panel on Fair Access published a report which slammed Britain’s “closed shop” mentality, saying to too many young people from middle and lower income families were being denied the opportunities given to those from higher income backgrounds. It found that over half of professional occupations such as law and finance are currently dominated by people from independent schools, which are attended by just 7% of the population.
Panel Chair, Alan Milburn MP, said: “It’s not that many young people do not have aspirations. It is that they are blocked. It is not that they do not have talent. […] It is not ability that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is opportunity. In this sense the professions simply reflect a wider problem in British society: a governing assumption in too many of our institutions that progress can be achieved on the basis of a limited pool of talent having access to a limited set of opportunities. Such elitism is unjust socially. And it can no longer work economically.”
The report suggested that higher education should be fee-free for students staying at home and studying at their local university and that 3,000 fully funded ‘Apprenticeship Scholarships’ should be offered to talented apprentices per year to combine their work with the opportunity of higher education.