Pay to Study or Study to Pay?

In light of the Comprehensive Spending Review’s proposed cuts for university funding and Lord Browne’s recent report on higher education, we looked at what all these changes actually mean for students.

The higher education sector has been analysed on many grounds with most important issues surrounding tuition fees and government funding. The Comprehensive Spending Review published on Wednesday, 20 October 2010, confirms our worst fears: university teaching costs are to be cut by 79 per cent, with a total of £4.2bn cuts on university funding. Only a couple of weeks before, Lord Browne’s report suggested the tuition fee cap of £3,290 should be lifted, with universities free to set up their own course costs. Although this means universities are set to battle for students in an open market governed solely by the mechanics of supply and demand, Browne predicts a few universities will set out high fees initially. As he told the BBC: “We have taken off the cap, but we haven’t taken off the restrictions.”

The new system would see universities charging over £6,000 in tuition fees paying a levy for every additional £1,000 to the Government. With the Treasury receiving this levy, the Government will then be able to provide loans for students taking the more expensive courses, such as pharmacy, medicine, engineering and law. There are two thresholds set at £9,000 and £12,000 with their respective percentages of 50 and 75 of each additional £1,000 (over £6,000) to be sent to the Treasury. For example, a university charging £6,000 won’t pay any levy, one charging £10,000 will pay £1,900 and one charging £14,000 will pay £4,800 per student. Also, given singular course costs per student and excluding other funding sources, universities will probably be looking at a minimum tuition fee of £7,400. Writes Teodora Beleaga…

Commenting on these tuition fees proposals, Coventry University’s Vice Chancellor, Madeleine Atkins, said: “The Browne Review has made the anticipated recommendations regarding student fees. Our main concern is for prospective students and their families.  We are very worried that the eventual outcome will deter those who are less well-off from going to university, and will therefore limit their life chances and opportunities for a professional career.” Although the Vice Chancellor is pointing towards the most affected by the new recommendations, it is all students who need to think twice about pursuing or completing their degrees. It is all of us who have to answer for ourselves whether education is still worth it.

The Students’ Union Vice President of Academic Affairs, Andy O’Shaughnessy, told us that the tuition fee cap scrap “is good for university revenue, but it’s very bad for lower income families and it’s very unfair in that sense,” adding that, “potentially, students will be paying more for less value.” The Socialist Students organisation also points this out as Claire Laker-Mansfield, national organiser, explains: “If implemented, this spells the end of access to university as we know it. Fees will have to be over £7,000 just to compensate for the cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. There will be a huge anger from young people against this, and the demonstration on 10 November should only be the start.”

Lord Browne’s report also suggests Tuition Fee Loans should be available for students to cover their entire course cost, regardless of how high this will be, and Maintenance Loans, are to be set at a flat rate of £3,750. Although the threshold for repayment will rise to a £21,000 annual salary, with graduates earning anything below it being let off from paying, the interest rate will also rise with 2.2 per cent above the Government’s borrowing rate, which currently means students will be paying back a total of 5.3 per cent more than they borrowed. The only up side to all this, as Browne told the BBC, is that “if you choose to go into a job which doesn’t pay very much or if you choose to go out of the workforce to build a family, you won’t have to pay it back.”

Contrary to rises in fees and loan interest rates, the Maintenance Grants are to be offered to students coming from families with a household income of up to £60,000. The full amount of the grant will also rise from the current £2,906 to £3,250. However, in order for this to happen, the university bursaries, which were available for all students accessing a grant and currently set at a minimum of £300, will be scraped. Coventry University Student Funding Assistant, Kate Whewell, explained how the improvements in the grants system are almost intangible: “More students should get a grant because the income threshold to qualify will increase to £60k, plus the grant maximum amount will increase as well. But, I suppose it won’t make a big difference when a student, ultimately, will come out of university with a massive debt due to the tuition fee increases, if the proposal goes ahead and gets passed through Parliament.”

Until these changes are finalised the National Union of Students (NUS) is fighting against them, putting forward their own blue print which proposes the abolishment of tuition fees in favour of a Graduate Tax. (To read more about their campaign access: http://www.nus.org.uk/en/Campaigns/Funding-Our-Future/What-is-the-NUS-Blueprint.)  Having organised the most recent national demonstration against university fees, Ben Robinson, Chair of Youth Fight for Jobs, also argues: “During a recession, when there is already the danger of young people becoming a lost generation, this is the government closing off yet another avenue. There is one job for every five people unemployed, with huge cuts coming in every service, and now, university is ruled out in the eyes of many young people from working and middle class backgrounds.”

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