With university tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year set to hit students’ pockets from 2012, we take a closer look at the plans and ask you whether the new fees are needed, and perhaps more importantly, fair.
After months of angry controversy which, in central London, bled into full-blown rioting, it seems the government has narrowly won the argument. From 2012, universities will be allowed to charge as much as £9,000 a year for tuition.
Last Thursday’s vote on the reform of higher education was a slim victory for the coalition, with a number of Liberal Democrats and even some Conservative MPs voting against the plans. And today, the House of Lords will debate the measure – with Labour peers determined to try and block it.
But was this a hollow victory for the government, too? Have they alienated the majority of voters, or successfully carried the general public with them – student protesters aside – on this crucial issue? Before you have your say, let’s take a closer look at the new system of funding for higher education…
A quick look at the new student loans
Young people will be able to borrow the full amount they need for university fees – which could amount to tens of thousands of pounds for long courses such as medicine or architecture.
The salary threshold from which loans will have to be paid back will rise from £15,000 to £21,000 a year, with 9% of a graduate’s earnings above this level payable to the Student Loans Company. This repayment threshold will increase annually, in line with inflation.
However, the interest rate to be charged on student loans will increase for some graduates. The rate for those with lower incomes will be 0%, but it’ll increase on a sliding scale according to what young people earn – with those commanding salaries above £41,000 paying a maximum rate of 3% above inflation.
Support for poorer students
When the ‘cap’ on tuition fees is lifted from £3,290 to £9,000 in 2012, universities will be able to almost triple the sums they charge students annually.
Any institution wishing to charge more than £6,000 a year, however, will need to commit to “access agreements” that are to be negotiated with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). These arrangements would commit the university to helping people from poorer backgrounds – though the National Union of Students is sceptical about whether they’d work.
Maintenance grants for students from households earning less than £25,000 will be increased from £2,906 to £3,250. The current system of means-tested loans for living expenses will remain in place, with students from less well-off backgrounds offered larger sums.
Meanwhile, pupils who have qualified for free school meals may be eligible to have up to two years’ worth of tuition fees paid for them under plans being considered by the government.
Where do you stand?
When Hannah Jolliffe first wrote about this issue on Which? Conversation, commenter Jem pointed out: ‘What no-one has really discussed is the potential effect of this increase in fees on student numbers in 2011. Many will apply for courses next year because in 2012 fees will double or treble.’ I think this is a very important point and one that I haven’t seen addressed by any government spokesperson so far.
Meanwhile, Shire of the Rose commented: ‘I am in doubt about how this government will produce new talent and highly skilled students. Instead of help, the government is giving more financial burden and stress.’
Fat Sam took a different view, suggesting that some universities should even be allowed to charge more than £9,000 a year:
‘I think there should be no cap. Universities are businesses, but to a large degree are funded by you and I – the taxpayer. However, many universities forget to treat students as paying customers who are adults.’
Personally, I have grave concerns about the impact of these reforms on students from working class backgrounds like mine. Would I have gone to university if I had known I’d face a £40,000 debt at the end of my course? I’d like to think I would have had faith in myself, and in the value of my degree – but I can’t be sure.
I worry that the sky-high fees our very best universities will charge won’t be offset by robust, effective measures to prevent the exclusion of young people from poorer families. And I fear that, if this is the case, we won’t realise it until we have already deprived many talented pupils of the education they richly deserve.
But what do you think? Are these reforms the only way to keep our universities internationally competitive, or are you anxious about their effects?