Hard-boiled Clegg says Uni has priorities scrambled

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Members of the coalition government have threatened to impose fines on universities that charge tuition fees of over £6,000 if they fail to improve access when changes come into force next year.

In a joint letter to the Director of Fair Access Sir Martin Harris, universities minister David Willets and business secretary Vince Cable emphasised that the highest fees should only be charged in “exceptional circumstances”.

Universities that want to charge fees above £6,000 will need to make an access agreement outlining ways to increase the number of students accepted from under-represented groups, and may be fined up to £500,000 if they fail to meet their targets.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg attacked universities that wish to charge higher fees in a BBC interview, saying: “Those universities who’ve said over the last few years that they want to charge £9,000, it’s not up to them, as they need permission from OFFA (the Office For Fair Access).”

Although OFFA currently has no power to put a limit on the number of universities charging the maximum tuition fees, Willets and Cable said in the letter that they may need to “reconsider what powers are available” if too many universities set their fees at the upper end of what is legally possible.

At the Congregation meeting of top University officials last week, University Pro-Vice Chancellor for Planning and Resources Tony Monaco said that fees of at least £8000 would be required to maintain current levels of teaching expenditure, with even higher required if fee waivers were to be provided for the poorest students.

Despite this and similar claims from other universities, Willets and Cable stated in the letter: “Institutions would need to charge considerably less than the maximum to offset reductions in HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) funding.”

Willets and Cable stated in the letter: “Increasing social mobility…and attracting a higher proportion of students from under-represented groups…are priorities for the coalition government”. They claimed that progress to secure access to the most selective universities in recent years has been “inadequate”.

Those groups considered to be “under-represented” include students from disadvantaged backgrounds, those with disabilities, some ethnic minorities and young people leaving care.

Their letter is also the first time that the government have explicitly endorsed the use of “contextual data” such as comparing applicants’ grades to the average attainment at their school, as a “valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access”. This point was particularly welcomed by the Director of Fair Access, who said that the letter “sends a clear message about the importance the Government places on fair access to education”.

The University’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Mike Nicholson said at Congregation that Oxford already has an access programme that other universities “would envy”.

Tim Gardam, Chairman of the Undergraduate Admissions Committee, said that he does not think Oxford should make different offers based on social background. He also questioned what more the University can do to increase the number of applicants from non-traditional backgrounds “when the government expects us to increase their numbers, even as it puts in place a funding mechanism that is likely to deter them further”.

It has been suggested that one reason for the recent surge in warnings from the government about fees is that the Treasury, according to a meeting between Nick Clegg and vice-chancellors, has modelled its future spending on average fees of £7,500. At this level, funding student loans will cost the government £3.6bn, but if average fees are £8000 or more the government may find itself severely out of pocket.