Tuition fees could rise as high as £9,500 for students starting university in 2018 under Department for Education (DfE) plans released last Thursday. The proposals come as Oxford raised its tuition fees for new and continuing students in the 2016–17 academic year from £9,000 to £9,250, a move which will be backed by law later this month, when the Higher Education and Research Bill is passed through Parliament.
Initial plans suggested that higher tuition fees would be linked to teaching quality – with top universities able to charge more – however plans released on Thursday show that universities in all three standard bands would be able to increase fees.
In one of the most significant recent overhauls of higher education, the plans explained how universities will be given a rating – gold, silver, or bronze – depending on teaching and research quality, student satisfaction, results, and graduate employment rates.
The Department for Education release says, “all those achieving a rating of bronze, silver and gold will receive the full inflationary uplift”.
Under the Bill, any increases in tuition fees would be linked to inflation, which is currently forecast at 3.2% for the year 2018–19, a figure that would see the cost of tuition pushed over the £9,500 mark.
Oxford’s recent first place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings suggest that any teaching or research standards required for the fee hikes would be met.
Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities installed by Theresa May in her cabinet overhaul following the EU referendum this July, defended the plans: “By setting out clear incentives for universities, the framework will drive up quality in the sector.” Back in May, he argued that the current cap has not kept up with inflation, so that it is worth the equivalent of £8,500 in real terms (as of May 2016).
This is partly Oxford’s justification for raising the fees to £9,250. In a statement issued at the time, a University spokesperson said: “Like many other institutions, Oxford faces increasing costs to deliver our pre-eminent tutorial system of education. The increase in fee income will also go to fund our essential admissions outreach work.”
The increases have been accepted by the Office for Fair Access on the condition that funding for access and outreach should increase. Universities will have to spend £834 million on such schemes in 2017–18, which amounts to 10% more on the upcoming year. Oxford alone will spend £13 million on outreach and scholarships.
Nevertheless, OUSU have criticised the move, saying that “we are exceptionally disappointed by the University’s decision to increase fees. … the decision was made by Council to raise fees despite student concerns. … All existing evidence focusing on access to Higher Education highlights that debt aversion disproportionately affects prospective students from the least socio-economically privileged backgrounds alongside other underrepresented groups when applying to university.”
Oxford is not alone in being allowed to raise its tuition fees. Most other universities will be able to set theirs at higher limits, but some other English universities, including Durham, Cambridge and York, have chosen not to raise tuition fees for continuing students.
A statement from OUSU, released after the rise to £9,250 was given the go-ahead, said: “Many of you will have started your courses under the impression that your tuition fees would be capped at £9,000 per year…we appreciate that many of you might have decided not to take your place at Oxford University had you known it would leave you in even greater financial debt than studying at another university”. Since the announcement, OUSU have launched a video campaign and online petition calling for the University to freeze current students’ fees at £9,000; as of 3 October, over 1,900 people have signed the petition.
The plans have also drawn condemnation from senior politicians. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, called the proposals “unacceptable”. Talking to the BBC, he said: “higher education needs to be funded sustainably but for government to continue to let fees creep up year on year, so students are unable to get a clear picture of the debt they might face, is unacceptable.”