Universities in England which can demonstrate “high quality teaching” will be given the option to raise their fees above the current £9000/year limit in line with inflation, Minister for Universities Jo Johnson has proposed.

In a Green Paper published earlier this week, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills suggested that universities should be ranked in four brackets based on student experience, graduate job prospects, drop-out rates and quality of teaching. Those universities in the top bracket of teaching would be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation, whilst the fees of those universities in the bottom rank would have to charge less than the current cap. The document will be under consultation until January next year, but is likely to lead to a White Paper, and potentially a bill before Parliament.

The increase in fees is part of a series of initiatives designed to encourage universities to raise the standards of their teaching. Other measures include the creation of a new “Office for Students” (OfS), which will merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access. The OfS would act as a student “champion”, as part of “a regulatory structure that puts the student interest – and value for money for the student, for the taxpayer, at its heart” in the words of Jo Johnson. The Green Paper explicitly states that the new regulator will have a statutory duty “to promote the interests of students to ensure that the OfS considers issues primarily from the point of view of students, not providers”.

Johnson has also pushed for universities to use “point scores” instead of traditional degree bands (1st, 2:1 etc) as grades. Johnson claimed the 2:1 band “disguises very considerable differences in attainment.” The paper also contains targets for a 20 per cent increase in the number of students from ethnic minority backgrounds studying at university, and aims to double the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The target would not be enforced by quotas, but would be monitored by the OfS, which would have the powers to require universities to release data on the backgrounds of their students. The paper also proposes that universities could become exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Labour’s Universities spokesman Gordon Marsden said the options to increase fees in line with inflation would create a “twotier system” that could “brand some universities as second class, and damage the life chances of students who go to them”.

Catherine Kelly, a second-year at St Hugh’s, told Cherwell, “[These proposals] will just lead to the further commodification of education and either discourage people from low income backgrounds from aiming for the highest quality educational institutions or leave them with a disproportionate level of debt. The slashing of the maintenance grants and this proposal go against all the government’s empty talk about making education more accessible to people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

When contacted, Oxford University said that it was “studying the paper carefully”, and “expect to respond in due course”.


Analysis: Patrick Mulholland on why he thinks a two-tier university system might not be the worst idea 

It’s the worst kept secret in British education but somebody has to say it: tertiary level education is a commodity. Gone are the highfalutin days of ‘education for education’s sake,’ of the Platonic ideal, of ‘the academy.’ Students are consumers. It’s like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character sizes up a cocksure Ivy League grad, “You dropped a hundred-and-fifty grand on an education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in lay charges at the public library.” To which, of course, he bluntly retorts, “Yeah, but I’ll have a degree.” Your £9,000 tuition fees are investments – investments that, undoubtedly, you wish to see a return on. The question then becomes not so much whether or not student fees are justified, but how they are apportioned fairly, and not so as to impede social mobility.

However, in trying to inextricably link the quality of teaching with wage packets, the government has committed a spectacular blunder. The plan to allow high-flying universities to increase tuition fees in line with inflation will not incentivise higher standards; rather, it will hike up grade inflation (UCU lecturers’ union), as has been seen in the States. Secondly, in a society where having a university education is seen as a monopoly on success, the onus lies on the state to account for any adjustment to student fees. Here, we must bear in mind that a degree is a marketable asset, and that non-EU international students already have to fork out up to £22,515. And, given that third level education for domestic students is already heavily subsidised by the taxpayer – many of whom haven’t attended university – I, personally, would argue that graduates should pay their fair share. Take Oxbridge, for example – simply having Oxon. or Cantab. after your name adds an extra £7,600 to your starting salary, on average. This ought to be reflected in our tuition costs. That is not, however, to say that there isn’t a threshold, nor that at £9,000 it has been undervalued, met or surpassed. Our definition of ‘fairness’ must be fleshed out by rigorous debate and engagement, on both sides of the equation – students and politicians.

The Green Paper also includes proposals to restructure the sector’s regulatory mechanism in the form of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This will employ the use of metrics such as student satisfaction, student retention rates and so on. Surely these measures, alongside the adoption of a US-style grade point average to assess performance beyond the fruits of a stressfilled, caffeine-fueled round of examinations, should be welcomed. Yet, some have argued that this will create a two-tier system, to which I say: what of it? Speaking to the Financial Times, universities minister, Jo Johnson said, “In any market, for it truly to function properly, you have to have the scope for market shares to shift and for people to choose to stop offering courses and ultimately also, if they decide so, to quit the sector altogether.” If universities are not fit to render the best possible service to students then they are not fit for business. So long as student loans are manageable and poorer families are not dissuaded from sending their children to university, I see little cause for complaint, at least in principle.