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Fees up, Applications down and a row about an Access Czar!

Nic Mitchell turns to Lewis Carroll’s Alice-in-Wonderland to make
sense of UK higher education policy.

I’m getting asked more and more by my friends and colleagues in mainland

Europe: What’s going on in British higher education?

It is a fair question and one that we keep asking ourselves!

And just when we think we understand, we find higher education thrust back on
to the front pages as another row ‘engulfs’ UK universities.

Take undergraduate tuition fees. Yes, the ones that sparked riots in London.
We all thought most universities would charge – at least in England – between
£8,500 to £9,000-a-year to home and EU students from this autumn.

But then the Vice-Chancellors got wind that the government would only allow
universities to expand by either taking more of the very top students based on A level results or through cutting their fees to under £7,500.

The Premier League ones didn’t fancy hordes of more students – it would spoil
their unique appeal. But many of the other universities did want more, and so a flurry of activity led to many (yes, you’ve guessed) cutting their average fees to under £7,500.

How will pay for this? Regrettably by cutting bursaries and scholarships that
were to be targeted in many cases at less well-off students.

The respected broadcaster and education commentator, Mike Baker, said in
a Guardian Opinion piece (21.02.2012): “The twists and turns of (UK) higher
education policy increasingly resemble the fantasy Alice embarked on when she
followed the White Rabbit down the hole for her Adventures in Wonderland.
Nothing is quite as it should be.”

It certainly would make a good plot for a modern-day Lewis Carroll.

Hence this new blog!

So where was I? Ah! Yes, well the British Government, aided by its universities, actually did a remarkably good job – after a poor start – in ‘selling’ the near trebling of tuition fees for full-time first undergraduate courses starting later this year.

Their argument was that students shouldn’t worry about the level of the fees, as they would not have to pay anything until they graduated and got a good job.

And they got a former critic, the Liberal MP Simon Hughes, to front the ‘awareness raising’ campaign.

It worked more, or less!

Fears of a dramatic plunge in applications for 2012-13 turned out to be a more
modest 8.7% decline in the number of British students seeking a place this
autumn.

Yes, I know that might sound bad, but at one point last year some universities
were worried that up to a quarter might be put off.

So, why the last minute dash for the tuition fees sales? And why did the body
set up to encourage a fair fees policy, OFFA, allow universities to slash prices midway through the recruitment cycle so they could squeeze under the
government’s £7,500 tuition fees target?

And where does it leave students who were counting on the bursary to help
them through university and believed that the fee level didn’t matter, as it was ‘buy now, and pay later when you’re earning loads of money’?

Well, as Mike Baker said in The Guardian piece: “Only in an Alice-in-Wonderland world can we make sense of the peculiarities of the new fee arrangements”.

For, it really can work out cheaper to buy something with a £9,000 price tag
rather than something priced at £7,500 or less when it comes to a university
degree.

How?

Well, the graduate with a £9,000 degree could pay back little or nothing if they don’t earn enough, while the graduate who pays the lower fee could easily end up paying all of the original loan plus plenty of interest. Graduates pay back 9% of salary for the loan on earnings over £21,000 whatever the level of the fee.

It is all very peculiar – and the man who has the job now of sorting out where we go from here has been subject to some of the nastiest stories in the Conservative press for daring to speak out.

He is none other than Professor Les Ebdon, a Vice-Chancellor from a modern
university, which stuck to its policy of high fees to fund generous bursaries.

Tory MPs and parts of the right-wing media behaved like the Queen of Hearts, as Mike Baker pointed out, rushing round yelling ‘off with his head!” before sanity was restored and his appointment as ‘Access Tsar’ was rubber-stamped.

So dear reader, I must leave it there, as I have run out of steam. I hope this
introduction has shed some light on the strange and stormy world of UK higher
education. And fear not, I will return soon to continue the story!