THE MASTER of University College has called for tuition fees to be raised so that the University can provide more financial assistance for poorer students.
His remarks have drawn criticism from student groups, who say that current levels of debt are too high and risk creating a ‘two-tier’ university system in the UK.
Writing in the Oxford Magazine, Lord Butler said that fees paid by middle class students were too low, and that they should contribute more to fund the degrees of poorer students.
"Instead of using scarce Government resources to subsidise youngsters from middle-class homes who could afford somewhat higher fees and would be prepared to pay them (especially when they don’t have to meet the cost until they are in well paid jobs) the Government’s resources and Oxford’s endowment could be concentrated on helping youngsters whose need for help is greatest," he said.
He advocated raising the tuition fee gradually, from the current maximum of £3,070 which is paid back once graduates earn more than £15,000 a year.
Butler, a former Cabinet Secretary, suggested that doing so would give the University some degree of independence from the Government’s HEFCE teaching grant of £1bn, enabling the Government to better fund universities with a poorer "brand".
"This would release resources (as the increase in tuition fees has already done) to provide more generous bursaries to encourage students from lower income families," he argued.
James Lamming, OUSU Vice-President (Access and Academic Affairs), said that he opposed a further increase in fees because it risked creating a two-tier system across UK universities.
"When last discussed in 2003, Oxford students opposed differential fees because they believe it will create a two-tier system of education based on the ability of a student to pay, not on a student’s ability to learn," he said.
He added that OUSU will be exploring student opinion over an increase in fees.
"OUSU will be consulting Oxford students’ opinions on funding higher education during the course of the year, as part of preparations for the 2009 review to be undertaken by the government on top-up fees.
"I hope Oxford students will reach a consensus on a funding system that ensures your university choice is only determined by your academic potential, but that provides our universities with the resources they need to continue providing world-class teaching and research."
Jonny Medland, Queen’s JCR President, feared that universities would not be able to offer similar sized bursaries.
"I’m opposed to any attempt to lift the cap on tuition fees. If Lord Butler’s proposal were implemented then there would inevitably be a disparity in the quality of bursaries offered from different universities to poorer students, with the danger being that the rise in tuition fees would not be matched by the expansion of bursary schemes," he said.
"Even if bursary schemes for the poorest university students were better funded, any increase in tuition fees would risk placing an unacceptable financial burden on students who didn’t quite meet an artificial standard for financial assistance."
He also pointed out that the 2006 increase in tuition fees has already caused a rise in individual student debt, saying, "At present, graduates are typically leaving university with a debt of about £4,000 per year spent doing their degree.
"Last year’s first-year undergraduates, the first year affected by the top-up fees regime, racked up an average debt of £5,586 per year, showing that tuition fees are already causing massive damage to student finances. The last thing that we should be doing is increasing the amount of debt that students are in when they leave university," he said.
Other universities whose Vice-Chancellors support raising the cap include Exeter and Birmingham.