Spectre of tuition fees looms for UK universities

By Ralph Marnham

For the past three months, the warning signals from the coalition government in the UK have been clear: there will be cuts to the university budgets and the current system of capped tuition fees is unsustainable. Next month, a radical review of university funding will be published by Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive.

It is already being called “the most far reaching revolution in higher education for decades”. The British government is also expected to announce a comprehensive spending review in the same month with the inevitable result that billions of pounds of Whitehall money will be removed from university coffers.

Ministers have made it clear that the government can no longer afford the current system. It is reported that the government pays £35 of every £100 borrowed by students to defer the payment of tuition fees until after graduation. The number of students going to university increases by 16% every year and in the present economic climate it is becoming apparent that this system can no longer be maintained.

It is expected that Browne will tell ministers to raise fees, currently at £3290, to £7000. He is also expected to suggest relaxing the rules regarding the setting up of private universities. Proponents of this approach argue that it will allow new forms of competition to develop between Britain’s universities and colleges. Ultimately this would raise the standard of degrees.

Universities have already been told to prepare for further cuts on top of a proposed reduction of £1.4 billion in investment in higher education over the next three years. Critics claim that the primary victims of such an approach will be the students. Research has shown that many students depend on handouts from their parents in addition to loans for living expenses, rent and tuition fees. However, it is not only the students who are worried.

At Liverpool’s Hope University, Professor John Brown, a lecturer on higher education policy is contemplating the new term with alarm. “It is the perfect storm. There is going to be a considerable threat to quality. Institutions are going to have to cut their spending on staff and the courses that don’t pay their way,” he says. “This threat to quality will damage our ability to attract international students who keep the whole thing afloat. This is dramatic. The implications are very serious.”

Others have tried to find alternatives to the increase in tuition fees. A large proportion of students and university leaders have backed plans for a graduate tax to fund universities in England. Million+, a group representing new universities, says a 1 percent tax on graduate earnings above £15,000 would allow for the abolition of tuition fees. This has been backed by student union leaders.

Meanwhile, established universities are also looking for alternatives to government funding. Oxford and Cambridge are following the fundraising examples of their American counterparts. Momentum is gathering around Oxford Thinking, a campaign launched in 2004 which aims to raise £1.25 billion. This narrowly edged out Cambridge’s £1 billion 800th anniversary campaign as the most ambitious fund-raising programme outside the United States.

The issue of university funding is promising to be a very divisive one within the coalition. The Liberal Democrats’ electoral pledge was a longterm commitment to scrap university fees and it seems that many Lib Dem MPs will not budge on the issue. Whatever the future holds, the storm clouds looming over Westminster regarding tuition fees seem to put Ireland’s higher education problems into perspective.