Mandelson announces tuition fees review

By Liz Stephens

A review of university tuition fees will be announced today, with fees widely expected to go up.

Peter Mandelson will make a speech today at Birkbeck University, where he will say: “The historic anti-elitism of some parts of the left on education policy has often been a dead end because it has confused excellence and privilege”.

But the business secretary will also recommend protection from tuition fee rises for students from poorer backgrounds.

“There must always be a link between what an institution charges and its performance in widening access and supporting those without the ability to pay,” he will say.

“We have to face up to the challenge of paying for excellence. Bluntly put: excellence is not cheap.”

Last week, former minister Alan Milburn delivered a report on social mobility which criticised universities’ performance in recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group which represents the 20 top universities, said: “It may be counter-intuitive, but actually we know from the evidence that finance plays very little role in determining whether a child goes to university.

“So the evidence shows that if a working-class child manages to overcome all the barriers they face and achieve three good A-levels, they’re just as likely as their middle-class peer to go to university.”

She added there was a large increase in applications to universities this year, which showed fees and access were not at odds with each other.

Only one in three students now comes straight from school. Critics have said one reason for this is the necessity for children from poorer backgrounds to delay their university education because of the need to save for tuition fees.

With the current financial crisis and rising unemployment those would-be students may be forced to delay university even longer.

The University and College Union (UCU) criticised the government for considering allowing universities to charge higher fees.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “Education is vital to our future prosperity, not something to be rationed and higher fees would be about as popular as the poll tax with hard working families.

“In a time of recession the government should be considering how to make access to education cheaper, not giving a green light to universities who wish to charge higher fees.”

Lord Mandelson will also announce a review of postgraduate education.

Postgraduate courses have become an important source of income for universities, particularly from the higher fees paid by overseas students, but there has been concern over the quality of some courses.

“It is a major export earner for the UK, and one which we have perhaps taken too much for granted,” Lord Mandelson will say.

The fees review will be part of a new framework for higher education which the government will launch in the autumn.