Government backpedals on tuition fee policy

Universities will be offered incentives to lower their fees as part of the government’s recent adjustments to its policy on tuition fees.

A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has outlined several problems that may result from the policy outlined in the initial White Paper on higher education released in June.

When the White Paper was published the government expected that most universities would opt to charge an average of £7,500 for tuition with only a few élite universities charging the maximum level of £9,000. However, the vast majority of Universities have declared that they will charge £9,000 which has caused the government to rethink some of the details of their plans.

Benjamin Maconick, Keble student and co-chair of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, acknowledged the government’s error of judgement, commenting, “It probably was a mistake of the government not to foresee that a lot of universities would charge £9k as a ‘prestige’ marker.”

Maconick predicted that the situation may correct itself naturally, saying, “I think common sense will work its magic and students will realise that universities such as Southbank are not worth £9k a year, and will hopefully stop applying there.”

The government’s latest proposals aim to discourage universities from charging more than £6000, by limiting the number of students they can take on. However, universities will be free to take as many students as they want with AAB or higher at A-level, as the limitations only apply to students with lower grades.

The HEPI report raised concerns that these plans will leave universities less inclined to admit students with high potential but lower grades which could increase the bias towards independent schools.

The Oxford University Press Office responded by saying that this aspect of the policy will not affect Oxford as the University “will continue to look for those with the ability and potential to succeed here, but with more than 33,000 students getting AAA every year and more than 17,000 applicants to Oxford, the University’s standard AAA offer will not be changing any time soon.”

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The HEPI study added that the need for Universities to compete for the top students may cause scholarships to become more “needs blind”, to which the Press Office said, “From 2012 Oxford’s fee waivers and bursaries will provide the greatest support for the poorest students of any university in the country, and this is a fact in which the University takes great pride.”

The government has also recently released proposals to charge penalties to graduates in England who repay their student loans early. The aim of the proposal is to prevent students who don’t need loans taking them out, putting them in an interest-earning savings account and paying them back at a profit.

James Lawson, chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Association commented: “Early repayment penalties are only one idea in consultation. The government will continue to review its policies in order to maximise fairness and quality in education.’

Meanwhile Benjamin Maconick of OULD, though agreeing that “the new system is undeniably progressive”, took a more negative view on this specific aspect of the government’s plans saying that the policy would cause unnecessary harm to “students from less well off backgrounds for whatever reason wanting to pay off their loans early, for example by being particularly fiscally prudent etc.”

In a report submitted to the government on Wednesday, a large group of academics, including several members of the Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education, declared that “the aim of increasing social mobility is likely to be frustrated by devices such as removing the numbers cap for AAB applicants, which will tend to concentrate students from private and public schools in the ‘top’ universities.”

The report is Oxford academics’ second major display of opposition since they voted for a motion of no-confidence in David Willetts in June. In it concerns were also raised about the forcing of market mechanisms into higher education and the encouragement of the creation of different types of higher education institutions including private universities and examination institutions that do not teach.

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It concluded that the coalition’s tuition fees policy has “no vision for the medium or long-term and demonstrates a worrying lack of foresight about the foreseeable consequences and level of risk which attends the proposed experiment.”