Raising tuition fees: the wall of silence

As students go to the polls in Oxford today, one issue has been kept off the agenda.

The Labour and Tory parties, Oxford, and the Russell Group of leading universities, have formed a wall of silence, refusing to say whether tuition fees should be raised after the election.

Students have accused the University of collaborating in a national cover-up over fees as an investigation by The Oxford Student reveals the University’s unwillingness to answer key questions on the issue.

The concerns come just days after the revelation that the government’s review on the future of higher education funding, due to report after the election, could call for fees for science undergraduates of up to £14,000.

Oxford’s unanswered questions

Oxford administrators were due to meet today to rubber-stamp the University’s second submission to the review, which is chaired by former BP boss Lord Browne. Only one student – OUSU President Stefan Baskerville – is represented in the University’s discussions.

Oxford’s Press Office this week refused to answer ten specific questions on tuition fees, saying it would be “premature” to outline their stance before the Browne Review reports.

St Hilda’s student Hannah Thompson, who heads the Oxford anti-cuts campaign, condemned the University’s “opaqueness”.

She said: “When it’s something that concerns students so much, they really should be including students in this discussion.

The Oxford Student understands that Oxford’s submission will once again highlight the so-called “tutorial gap” – the £8,000 gap between the cost of teaching the average Oxford undergraduate and the current government funding per student – and stress that the current funding system is unsustainable, leaving the field wide open for a fee rise. It will not, though, call for a specific fee to be charged.

An informed source said: “I’m surprised students haven’t been angrier. What people are expecting [a fees hike] is what people are going to get.

“Public funding only meets half of the cost of the tutorial. You don’t need an A-level to work out what [the Oxford submission is] going to say.”

The University will also send a colourful pamphlet, An Oxford Education, which stresses the advantages of Oxford’s expensive tutorial system, to all new MPs, and to Lord Browne, after the election. The leaflet stresses that Oxford “subsidise[s] each undergraduate’s education by as much as £8,000 per year.”

But OUSU has hit out at plans to raise fees, suggesting that Oxford should have backed their proposal of a progressive tax on graduates instead.
OUSU VP Jonny Medland said: “Abolishing the cap on tuition fees will allow universities to create an open market in higher education and risks opening the door to variable fees depending on what course students study. Universities are academic institutions and students should decide where to study on the basis of academic considerations.

“Allowing universities to charge whatever they want will make financial considerations all-important for students. This risks undermining access to universities, and particularly to leading institutions such as Oxford.”

In common with Oxford, most of the prestigious Russell Group universities have not argued against tuition fee rises, although the Group itself has refused to publish its first submission to the review, despite an OUSU request under the Freedom of Information Act. The Group this week again refused to release their report, saying: “We are working towards our own schedule.”

In contrast to this secrecy, some modern universities have broken ranks to defend students from proposals to raise fees.

A submission to the review by Plymouth University states: “The response of most universities has been to focus on being permitted to increase the level of student fees. This reaction seems to ignore the reality that this would raise the level of debt incurred by students at a time when many of them are facing extremely poor employment prospects as a result of the recession.”

Asked about Oxford’s stance, Plymouth’s Professor Ian Chaston said: “I understand why Oxford has little need to worry about the removal of the cap. The institution will continue to have applicant numbers higher than available places.

“Nevertheless…in order for Oxford to minimise adverse impacts I believe the University needs to do more in relation to expanding the provision of bursaries to students from lower income families and expanding efforts to communicate a commitment to attracting students on the basis of intellectual merit.”

An Oxford University spokesperson said: “Oxford has always been clear that we believe any significant fee rises would need to take place gradually over time and be matched by bursaries that served to protect the principle of needs-blind entry for students.

“There is an under-funding problem, and it’s fair to say the University would want all possible avenues for closing the funding gap to at least be explored.”

Political silence

University submissions to the Browne Review are due by next Friday – just a week after a general election in which the main parties have successfully kept fee rises off the agenda.

Labour and the Tories have failed to outline plans for higher education funding, waiting until the review reports. A Labour Party spokesperson repeatedly refused to be drawn on the party’s plans, saying: “The manifesto is the position the party is campaigning on.”

In its manifesto, the party states: “Our aim is to continue the expansion of higher education, widening access still further, while ensuring that universities and colleges have a secure, long-term funding base that protects world-class standards in teaching and research.” The party would not comment on what factors other than the Browne review would influence its stance on funding.

In their manifesto, the Tories promise to “ensure that Britain’s universities enjoy the freedom to pursue academic excellence and focus on raising the quality of the student experience.” Their press office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party to outline policies on higher education funding. The party has pledged to phase out tuition fees over a six year period, starting with students in their final year. This is costed at £600m in 2010/11 in the appendix to their manifesto, moving up to £1,765m per year by 2014/15. The party claims that they have “a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income.”

Visiting Oxford Brookes last week, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: “We have always been against tuition fees.” He added that it was unfair to expect graduates to enter the “adult world” saddled with debt, and argued that with the current state of the economy it was ridiculous to add to the debt, saying: “Since when is debt an answer to debt?”