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The current issue of the proposed rise in tuition fees has prompted intense debate and much controversy, with detractors of the argument believing that a further increase in fees would only serve to hark back to the days of elitism that was rife in universities back before the 1960s. The supporters of the raise believe that an increase in fees is necessary to increase the competitiveness of our universities against the best the world has to offer, such as. Harvard and Yale. The battle lines have been drawn.
The background to the current debate begins with the introduction of top-up fees by Tony Blair’s Labour government, accepted in 2004 with the passing of the Higher Education Act, which allowed the increase in the cap on tuition fee costs to rise to up to £3,000. The bill was only just passed in the House of Commons, scraping a five vote majority to win the vote 316 to 311. This was coupled with a review of the tuition fees system that was set up in the same year, intending to investigate the tuition fees system. The increase to £3,000 was completed in 2006.
The current debate over the issue relates to calls by many universities to gain increased funds through the removal of the tuition fees cap. This, they argue, will enable universities in the UK to compete with the world’s best, despite the current placement of four British universities (Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL) in the top ten list for international academic establishments. The tuition fees increase would allow fees to reach £7,000 per annum and enable a rise in interest rates for all student loans, effectively more than doubling university income from students’ applications.
The review has been a key aim for many vice-chancellors around the country, especially Lancaster’s vice-chancellor Paul Wellings. He has called out for an increase in fees to expand funding and allow for higher quality within universities. The review itself has been called to discuss the current fees system and debate whether it needs to be adapted.
Peter Mandelson’s proposed review itself has led to claims of a whitewash on the fees issue. The strict rules for members of the review panel has all but forced the NUS to withdraw, citing its inability to be able to discuss developments and its stance on the issue in public.
The review’s postponement of its decision until after the next general election has also caused a significant backlash, with accusations that the government has attempted to move the decision in the belief that the issue is a potential vote-loser and political cyanide. It would be difficult for Labour to raise tuition fees when it knows full well that for many sections of the general public, and for students, a raise would prevent them supporting the party at the next general election.
The Conservatives too have supported the postponement of the release of the review’s results, indicating a belief that a request to raise tuition fees above the current cap is most probably going to be announced in the summer when the general election is over. The desire itself for the current proposals to be bandied around come from a report by the Confederation of British Industry, describing the current University funding in the UK as critical and proposing an increase in funding via the raising of fees, reduction of grants and increasing interest on loans taken out by all students at universities in the country. This is all indicative of one thing: the next few months will see prolonged debate.
The next step is how the review eventually takes place and whether the NUS and students’ unions across the country can prevent the raise in fees taking place.