Government caught short by fee rises

As of September 2012, more than a third of universities in England will charge the maximum fee of £9,000 for every course, after their plans were officially approved by the university fees watchdog.

In order to charge fees of over £6,000, universities had to demonstrate plans to attract more students from poorer backgrounds to be approved by the Office for Fair Access.

However, no universities were forced to cut their proposed fees during negotiations with Offa: all those institutions that sought to charge the maximum fees have been allowed to do so.

58% of universities will now charge full fees for at least some courses. Similarly, 8 out of 10 universities in Wales will charge £9,000 for some or all of their courses.

This is despite the government’s insistence that the amount of universities charging the maximum fees would remain relatively low. Earlier this year, the Universities Minister David Willetts stated that universities would only be charging £9,000 in “exceptional circumstances”, and those that did charge maximum fees might “end up looking rather silly”.

However, following the announcement by Offa, the Office for Fair Access, Willetts conceded that he “didn’t expect so many universities to set a headline figure of £9,000”.

The government has continued to argue that access will not be affected by the rise in fees: universities will not be allowed to charge higher tuition fees unless they demonstrate substantial efforts to attract students from poorer backgrounds.

Although no universities were forced to cut proposed fee levels during negotiations, the Director of Fair Access, Sir Graeme Davies, maintained that the process had been “rigorous and robust”. 52 out of 141 institutions’ plans for widening access, as a prerequisite to the fee rises, were initially rejected by Offa for not being extensive enough.

Offa argue that as a result of these negotiations they have succeeded in getting universities to spend an extra £21 million on overall access measures. By 2015-16, universities will be spending £600m on widening access, an increase from £407m in

Willetts had previously said the £9,000 rate would only occur in "exceptional circumstances"

Liam Burns, President of the NUS, stated that the supposedly fairer and more rigorous access measures were “a cynical attempt to cover up the mess made when the government trebled the tuition fee cap, instead of properly supporting less-wealthy students”.

While ministers such as Willetts and Cable initially stated that fees over £6,000 would only be used in exceptional measures, “this solemn promise has quite clearly now been left in tatters”, with a third of universities charging £9,000 for all their courses.

Offa suggested that, in practice, less than half of university students would be charged £9,000 once access schemes are taken into account. However, the average student will be paying £8,393 as of 2012, which factors to £8,161 once fee-waivers and bursaries
are included.

Professor Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of university think-tank Million+, noted that these figures are “higher than the £7,500 predicted by ministers and reflects the impact of the coalition government’s policy of cutting public investment in university teaching by 80%”.