The government’s decision to allow universities to charge UG tuition fees of up to £9,000 per academic year clearly was an own goal. A BBC survey shows that about half of all higher education institutions in the UK are planning to charge the full fees, and even those who don’t on average demand more than the £7,500 the government had bargained for. In fact, the average fee is likely to be closer to £8,500, leaving the government to foot the bill until the new graduates are earning more than £21,000 per year. If the job market doesn’t pick up quickly, there won’t be many graduates to do so in the near future.
The government said originally universities would only be allowed to charge the top level of fees in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and only on condition that institutions would widen access. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for most institutions. They will introduce bursaries and fees waivers, and some institutions have never had an access problem in the first place. Look at the post-1992 universities, for instance, who have traditionally been most welcoming to students from poorer backgrounds. Surely they should be allowed to charge whatever they want from the rich as long as they make sure the less privileged will still get an affordable place on their courses.
The main reason for universities to charge as much as they can in fees is simple. The government is withdrawing money from teaching budgets, so higher education institutions have to make up for the shortfall somehow, or teaching standards will drop damaging the reputation of the UK education system both at home and abroad.
The Universities Minister David Willetts says, under the new system UK institutions could have some 10 per cent more income in cash terms by 2014. As our VC explained at a recent staff meeting, this will still be less than universities have now due to rising inflation, but things don’t look quite as bad for us as we might have thought.
It’s the government that didn’t do its sums right. Surely, they didn’t expect they could set the fees cap at £9,000 and expect no one except Oxford and Cambridge to take advantage of it? Any university worth their money will feel obliged to charge as much as they can to make sure they keep their good reputation. Charging significantly less than the maximum £9,000 per year will just make your institution look, ahem, cheap.
Someone hasn’t thought that one through.