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19 April 2011

The coalition’s tuition fees plan remains in chaos

70 per cent of universities now plan to charge £9,000 a year.

By George Eaton

When the coalition’s tuition fees legislation was passed by a majority of just 21 votes in December, Vince Cable reassured the public that universities would charge the maximum £9,000 a year in “exceptional circumstances” only. We now know that the reverse is the case: universities will charge less than £9,000 in exceptional circumstances only.

Of the 60 institutions that we’ve heard from, 42 intend to charge full whack, including Oxford (1) and the University of East London (117). The average fee now stands at £8,679.20, well above the £7,500 predicted by the government.

In part, as I’ve noted before, this is to offset the planned 80 per cent reduction to the university teaching budget. But it’s also because no higher education institution wants to look like a cheap option. Instead, like Stella Artois, they want to be reassuringly expensive.

The vice-chancellor of Teeside University (which intends to charge £8,500), Prof Graham Henderson, admitted as much yesterday. “There has been a lot of feedback against fees,” he said, “but our students have been checking we are not charging the bottom of the spectrum because they don’t want it to be seen as second-rate.”

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Hull and Harper Adams are the latest to join the £9,000 club.

Those institutions that charge the full amount will be required to spend £900 of that income on access for poorer students. But the danger is that pupils from the poorest backgrounds, hard-wired to fear debt, will be deterred from applying at all. A survey last year by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that 70 per cent of current students would have avoided university if fees had been set at £7,000, with those from low-income households most put off.

Ministers are now running out of time to amend their reforms. Today is the deadline for those universities hoping to charge more than £6,000 to submit their plans to the Office for Fair Access.

The universities minister, David Willetts, is right to point out that fee waivers and bursaries will allow many students not to pay full whack. But it was still hopelessly naive of the goverment to model its plans on an average fee of £7,500.

Willetts has yet to explain how he’ll afford to pay out as much as £1bn more in subsidised loans.

The danger, as Ed Miliband warned at a press conference this morning, is that the coalition will make even deeper cuts to the teaching budget or reduce the number of student places by 36,000. It is time for ministers to tell us their plan B.