Chancellor backs removal of Tuition Fee cap

The Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten, has called for the cap on tuition fees to be scrapped.

In a speech at the Independent Schools’ Council annual conference in London, Patten said the current limit was “preposterous”. Removing the current cap for British students’ fees (£3,225 per year) would, he said, help meet the cost of teaching students, and help to maintain the world-class status of universities such as Oxford.

Patten remarked, “Speaking entirely for myself…I would be prepared to cap the present funding of our teaching grant if we were able as a result to set whatever tuition fee we wanted, provided that we could demonstrate that we were still guaranteeing needs-blind access with generous bursaries.”

Patten noted that teaching an undergraduate at Oxford costs approximately £16,000, about half of which is currently met by publicly funded teaching grants and tuition fees.

International students’ fees are not subject to a cap. For example, a student from overseas reading humanities or social sciences will have to pay £12,200 per year for 2010-11, as well as college fees. For sciences, the cost of tuition rises to £14,000 per year.

Removing the cap on tuition fees for home undergraduates would create a system in the UK similar to that which exists in the USA. For the current academic year, Harvard is charging $33,696 in tuition fees. Princeton is charging $35,340 for the same period.

Student reaction to Patten’s proposals has been mixed. Olly Richards, a second-year History student, reacted angrily. “I think it is a preposterous idea. The university is continually lambasted for not accepting enough state school students and this is a move which will further alienate this potential student base.”

Ellie Taylor, a second-year Modern Languages student, disagrees. “We still pay very little relative to the actual cost of university education, and if it means that I receive the highest possible quality education, I would be prepared to pay more, provided those who genuinely could not afford the increase were protected.”

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An Oxford University spokesperson was keen to emphasise that Lord Patten’s views were not shared by the University, commenting, “The Chancellor was speaking in his own personal capacity. The University does not yet have a settled position on the fees question.

“Our initial submission to the Browne Review made clear that the University is faced with significant underfunding of undergraduate teaching. We are clear, however, that the gap cannot be addressed by fees alone. We are also clear that whatever happens with fees, access must be regardless of finances. Any increase in fees would have to be matched by bursaries serving to protect the principle of needs blind access for all students.”

Jonny Medland, OUSU VP (Access & Academic Affairs) commented, “We’re used to Lord Patten calling for the cap to come off fees but his ideas remain dangerous and irresponsible. An open market between universities risks deterring students from applying to the best institutions and undermining decades of work which Oxford has put into expanding access to the university.

“The students of Oxford have voted in support of a progressive graduate contribution to higher education – this should be based on the ability of graduates to pay, rather than on the risk that they’re willing to take aged 18. Both Oxford’s local MPs agreed to our agenda on funding within 24 hours of the Browne Review being announced.”

The Chancellor’s speech came in the same week as higher education institutions were told by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) of the extent of cuts to their budgets. Oxford’s income will be reduced in real terms by 1 per cent from 2010-11.

David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, said, “These changes come after years of sustained investment. Higher education funding is up by 25% in real terms since 1997. Like everyone in the current financial climate, institutions have to do their fair share of belt-tightening.”

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Dr Steve Goddard, a University lecturer and Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Oxford East, reacted critically, commenting, “These cuts are a serious setback. Hugely important research may be hit and teaching budgets cut.”