Comment: The betrayal of higher education

Yesterday’s vote saw MPs put political calculation far above the future for students – which now appears grim indeed.

By Sally Hunt

There are no winners in the news that MPs have voted in favour of university fees of up to £9,000 a year. The government’s majority may have been slashed from 84 to 21, but enough Liberal Democrats broke a pledge with the electorate to vote against any increase in tuition fees.

Increasing fees to £9,000 is the first move for a government intent on brutally slashing universities’ teaching budgets. Students will see the cost of their degree rocket and universities will have to charge much higher fees just to recoup the money the government is taking away in budget cuts. These plans will not see extra money for many institutions and others will struggle to deliver quality education with less money.

Analysis of how much universities will have to charge students to replace that lost funding makes a mockery of government claims that only in exceptional cases would universities charge more than £6,000 a year. Every single English institution with undergraduates would have to charge more than £6,000 a year to plug the funding gap. The average fee would be £6,863.

In draft guidance released on Tuesday, the government said that any institution wishing to charge more than £6,000 a year would need to agree an ‘access agreement’ with the university access regulator OFFA. Any institution that breaches or fails to deliver its access agreement would face a fine of up to £500,000.

The entire landscape of higher education will change if the government pushes ahead with its plans for university funding. Shifting the burden of paying for a university education from the state to the student would not generate the extra funds universities say they need, nor would it provide an enhanced experience for the individual student.

Some institutions will lose all their government funding and need to charge as much as £7,700 a year just to maintain their current funding and fee levels. MPs need to think long and hard about whether or not they really think record fee levels benefit their constituents or our international reputation.

Greg Mulholland was absolutely right to call for the vote to be delayed yesterday. There has not been anything like the level of scrutiny of the government’s plans that there should have been. He was also right to call for new and proper consultation that included speaking to graduates and their families – important groups that were ignored during the Browne review.

Rushing through these proposals was the worst thing the government could have done. The vote was about politics, not what was best for higher education.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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