Tuition Fees and the Future

Oxbridge and Imperial want to charge £9,000 in fees from 2012. The highest amount possible.

While we’re well aware of student protests and unhappiness with higher fees, it’s still no surprise that universities are announcing the wish to charge students top whack for tuition.

original photo by RachelH_

original photo by RachelH_

Take away the controversy of higher fees for a moment and focus on what’s happening to see why a varied market in fees is unlikely.

The Browne review wanted to see no price cap in place. A big, scary thought for many future students. But the cap hasn’t been removed; it has merely been raised.

Under current terms, the natural move by universities will be to charge the highest possible amount. This is because they face:

  • A near total removal of public funding for teaching;
  • The unrestricted ability to charge fees of £6,000;
  • A requirement to create an ‘access agreement’ for universities choosing to charge above £6,000, up to a maximum of £9,000;
  • A need for the average tuition fee to be £7,500 in order to simply recoup the losses from the removal of funding.

In turn, this means:

  • Universities need to find more money from somewhere in place of public funding;
  • £6,000 isn’t enough, on average;
  • An access agreement is required for £6,000.01 just the same as it is required for £9,000, so there is little incentive to charge below the £9,000 maximum.
  • As the average £7,500 required is above the unrestricted cap, all universities are likely to require a written access agreement.

This is why, back in November, I suggested that the cap will become the price. If different prices do occur, my guess is that they will be £6,000 and £9,000; the two caps.

Now that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) have been issued with guidance for universities charging fees, commentators suggest that there’s not much stopping all institutions charging the maximum. David Willetts even states in the guidance to OFFA:

“It is, of course, not within your legal powers to impose any quota for how many institutions charge what level of graduate contribution, and that is consistent with our policy of an autonomous higher education sector, where institutions take their own decisions.”

Willetts suggests that further legislation may be required if all institutions charge the same amount. Universities, therefore, either face further turbulent times further down the line (when matters are already less favourable for them right now), or they face some kind of climb down from the government. Neither situation would be pleasant for anyone. Not for the government, not for the public, not for universities, and not for students.

OFFA’s role is to “promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for lower income and other under-represented groups” [source]. The government is, therefore, one step removed from social mobility arguments that could continue if access agreements don’t make the situation much better than they already are. Essentially, the ball is now in OFFA’s court.

But they’re in a tough position. You can see why £9,000 is being tipped as the way all universities will want/need to go. That’s before you take into account the idea of prestige. As soon as one institution suggests a lower fee, it will appear to be less worthy than those charging a higher amount, regardless of the realities.

There is little surprise that Oxbridge and Imperial are touting £9k fees. But it will only take one or two less ‘prestigious’ universities wanting to charge top whack for everyone else to follow suit. They’ll feel the *need* to follow suit, even if they’re thinking about charging slightly less.

When £3,000 fees were introduced in 2006-07, only Leeds Metropolitan offered a lower tuition fee (around £2,000). The move didn’t work for them and they eventually charged £3,000 like everyone else.

Will we see a repeat of this, with only a handful of institutions introducing lower fees? Who knows? The expectation remains — and is growing daily — that everyone will want to use £9,000 as the standard tuition fee.

As with everything in the future, only time will tell. But if we do see the tripling of fees as the norm, be sure to expect further moves in years to come. This is only the beginning of what may be a pretty long journey.

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