English fund­ing re­view warned over ‘dam­ag­ing’ dif­fer­en­tial fees

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - john.mor­gan@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

UK higher ed­u­ca­tion bod­ies have united to warn the gov­ern­ment’s fund­ing re­view not to in­tro­duce dif­fer­en­tial fees in Eng­land, with both the Rus­sell Group and the Mil­lionPlus group of post-92 uni­ver­si­ties say­ing such a move would dam­age so­cial mo­bil­ity.

Sub­mis­sions to the re­view of Eng­land’s post-18 ed­u­ca­tion and fund­ing also show that bod­ies across the sec­tor, in­clud­ing Uni­ver­si­ties UK, GuildHE, Mil­lionPlus, the Univer­sity Al­liance and the Rus­sell Group rec­om­mend look­ing at Wales’ Di­a­mond re­view, which cre­ated a gen­er­ous sys­tem of stu­dent main­te­nance grants and loans, as a role model.

Launch­ing the re­view led by exbanker Philip Au­gar in Fe­bru­ary, prime min­is­ter Theresa May com­plained that the “competitive mar­ket be­tween uni­ver­si­ties which the sys­tem of vari­able tu­ition fees en­vis­aged has sim­ply not emerged”, and one of the re­view’s ques­tions in its call for ev­i­dence asks how the gov­ern­ment could “cre­ate a more dy­namic mar­ket in price and pro­vi­sion be­tween uni­ver­si­ties and across the post-18 ed­u­ca­tion land­scape”.

But Mil­lionPlus says in re­sponse that it is “not pos­si­ble to cre­ate a mar­ket with a vari­able price sig­nal when re­pay­ments for loans are in­come con­tin­gent”.

Vary­ing fee caps by univer­sity or course ac­cord­ing to grad­u­ate earn­ings is seen as an op­tion un­der con­sid­er­a­tion within gov­ern­ment.

Cit­ing In­sti­tute for Fis­cal Stud­ies re­search show­ing that fam­ily back­ground is the prin­ci­pal fac­tor in grad­u­ate earn­ings, Mil­lionPlus ar­gues that such a sys­tem would “se­ri­ously harm the gov­ern­ment’s am­bi­tions to pro­mote so­cial mo­bil­ity”.

“A move to dif­fer­en­tial fees be­tween providers or link­ing fees to grad­u­ate earn­ings would sim­ply trans­fer re­sources to stu­dents from bet­ter-off back­grounds and to uni­ver­si­ties who hap­pen to be based in wealth­ier re­gions of Eng­land,” Mil­lionPlus says.

The Rus­sell Group says: “In­tro­duc­ing a sys­tem of dif­fer­en­tial fees based on cost of de­liv­ery, grad­u­ate or so­cial return, would likely be prob­lem­atic and could have neg­a­tive consequences for stu­dents as well as for uni­ver­si­ties and for the broader role they play in the econ­omy and so­ci­ety.”

In its sub­mis­sion, Uni­ver­si­ties UK says that mech­a­nisms to in­duce “greater vari­a­tion in fees lev­els”, such as by cost of sub­ject or level of grad­u­ate earn­ings, pose “many prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and risks”, in­clud­ing that poorer stu­dents “may choose cheaper cour­ses of study to the detri­ment of achiev­ing their po­ten­tial”.

“Com­ments from min­is­ters and MPs about forc­ing dif­fer­en­tial fees…are mud­dled and, if acted on, po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing to teach­ing qual­ity, the stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence and the wider econ­omy,” says GuildHE in the sum­mary of its sub­mis­sion. “It’s not clear what prob­lem dif­fer-

en­tial fees are try­ing to solve.”

The re­view’s call for ev­i­dence did not ask a ques­tion about the level at which to set fees, and the sec­tor rep­re­sen­ta­tive and mis­sion groups do not de­tail any pro­pos­als here.

But GuildHE says that the gov­ern­ment should take on a greater share of the costs of higher ed­u­ca­tion, and grad­u­ates less, re­turn­ing to the 60:40 split bal­anced towards the gov­ern­ment “that was in place be­fore 2012”, when fees were tre­bled to £9,000.

The Rus­sell Group warns against any re­duc­tion in fees “with­out a com­pen­satory in­crease in grant fund­ing”. It also sug­gests us­ing “some of the ex­pected un­der­spend from the ap­pren­tice­ship levy by cre­at­ing a broader, flex­i­ble adult skills fund which could be used for a va­ri­ety of pur­poses”, in­clud­ing sup­port for part-time stu­dents and the rein­tro­duc­tion of main­te­nance grants for poorer stu­dents.

On liv­ing cost sup­port for stu­dents, UUK’s sub­mis­sion “rec­om­mends re­in­stat­ing gov­ern­ment main­te­nance grants, funded by new money, tar­geted to those stu­dents who need them the most. This has al­ready been achieved in Wales, where a new pack­age of stu­dent sup­port has been im­ple­mented, fol­low­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Di­a­mond re­view.”

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