Mandelson launches tuition fee time bomb

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Peter Mandelson
Peter Mandelson

The government’s long awaited review on tuition fees was announced on Monday following months of speculation and debate. Lancaster has joined student unions across the country in protest against any rise in the fees, which many feel is the likely outcome of the review.

Although the framework of the review has been welcomed by university and business leaders, student representatives are concerned that student voices will not be taken into account. This concern has been exasperated by the apparent lack of student representation on the review panel. At Lancaster there is extra concern as Paul Wellings, the Vice Chancellor, is the first university leader to have publically spoken out in favour of an increase in fees.

Since learning of the announcement of the review on Saturday, Lancaster University Students’ Union has been coordinating a campaign to make sure that students are as informed as possible about what the review entails. Every flat on campus has received a letter from LUSU President Michael Payne explaining the situation. On Friday the union will be gathering students outside of Lancaster’s townhall to deliver their message to local MP, Ben Wallace.

Payne, who is also Chair of Union 94 – a collection of 19 leading student unions – has said in his comment piece for SCAN: “This Labour government promised no top up fees in 2001, they promised to increase access to universities by setting up the Office of Fair Access (Offa) in 2003 and they promised to stand up for those from under privileged backgrounds. They have now reneged on many of those promises and turned their back on students in higher education.”

Over the summer Wellings spoke out in favour of an increase in fees in order to “bring in sufficient funding and enhance competition to further drive up quality.” Speaking in his capacity as Chair of the 1994 Group – a collection of 18 of UK’s leading research intensive universities – the Vice Chancellor said: “The government and higher education sector now faces a clear choice: reduce student numbers or increase funding for higher education. It would be wrong to reduce volume […] the only viable option is that funding needs to rise to maintain quality.”

Replying to Welling’s comments Payne said: “Although our Vice Chancellor’s position is that the fees cap needs to be high enough to maintain quality, this is most certainly not the position of LUSU nor Unions 94. The review panel must consider more progressive and alternative options and not simply bow to Vice Chancellors’ wish lists.”

Business Secretary’s statement

The review was announced on Monday in a written statement from the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson. Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP and personal friend of Lord Mandelson, was named as chair of the independent review. He will report on its findings after the general election, denying students the chance to treat the election as a referendum on the review. The choice of a businessperson over an academic is in line with the government’s view that universities should be treated more like an industry than a service.

There will be no official student representative on the review panel. The criteria outlined for members of the panel made clear that they would have to remain independent and would not be able to speak out in the media throughout the duration of the review. These restraints mean that the Nation Union of Students has ruled itself out of the process, preferring instead to step up its campaigning activity in light of the review and general election.

Currently students pay around £3,500 per year in tuition fees. Some Vice Chancellors, along with business leaders, have called for this figure to be increased to £7,000. A more likely figure is £5,000.

Recently, the Confederation of British Industries called for interest on student loans to be charged at the Government’s own borrowing rate, rather than the subsidised rate linked to inflation. The CBI has also said that the threshold for student maintenance grants should be cut from a parental income of about £50,000 to £38,000.

Sarah Strachan, a LUSU part-time officer who has been involved in the LUSU’s awareness campaign from the early stages, said: “The review panel needs to be open with the public, and involve groups such as students and parents in their discussions. Without factoring in the real needs and opinions of those individuals, universities are going to turn highly valuable minds off of the idea of higher education. If universities want to be treated more like businesses they need to remember that the customers come first.”

In his statement announcing the fees and funding review Lord Mandelson claimed that tuition fees have not put off students from poorer backgrounds applying to university. This statement has been refuted, with student leaders arguing that with fewer jobs on offer more young people have been forced to look into higher education as the only viable option to unemployment. Almost half a million 18 to 24-year-old are currently unemployed. The number of 2009 graduates out of employment after six months looks set to hit 30,000.

A survey carried out by the NUS last week found that less than 13% of the population felt that fees increases should be something the review panel considers. Half of those questioned said that fees should be abolished outright. Three-fifths believe there must be lecturers represented on the core review group and 81% said the review must be conducted in public. The survey was open to everyone over the age of 18.

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, emphasised that the review needs to conducted properly with the relevant voices, particularly those of academics and students, being heard. “All the parties must clearly state their fee policies to ensure that students and their parents can make an informed choice at the ballot box and add their voices to the debate on the future of university funding,” Hunt said. “There is little doubt in my view that a higher fees policy would cost a party valuable votes at the ballot box. However, that does not make it acceptable for the main parties to use this review as an excuse to duck the issue ahead of the election.”

In 1997 Sir Ron Dearing produced a landmark report, in which he concluded that students would have to start paying towards the cost of university. Dearing’s original plan was for students to pay 25% of that cost. Currently, the amount students pay stands at around 80%. The Dearing report was followed in 1998 by the Teaching and Higher Education Act, which set an annual tuition fee of £1000 for students in England. The fees were dubbed a ‘student poll tax’.

Three years later David Blunkett, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, promised that there would be “no levying of top-up fees in the next parliament if we win the next election.” In 2003, the government announced its plans for variable top-up fees. The upper limited per year was set at £3000.

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