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University bosses attack tuition fee cut proposal as “implausible”

Credit: Himasha Weera

SOAS Students took a stand for free education at a recent demonstration by creating a wall of books at the march • Credit – Himasha Weera

Tom King, BA Politics

University bosses have criticised plans likely to be set out by the Labour Party which would see tuition fees at English universities cut to £6,000.

The 19 English members of the Universities UK (UUK) board, which lobbies on behalf of higher education institutions, joined the body’s President Professor Sir Christopher Snowden in writing to The Times to oppose a proposal to reduce the amount students are charged.

The letter claims that cutting fees by a third would cost £10bn over the course of the next Parliament, which the signatories say is “implausible” given the current pressures on public finances. They go on to say that “cutting the fee cap does not help poorer students and risks the quality of education for all.”

Labour is expected to announce its higher education policy later this month. The party first proposed a cut in tuition fees in 2011 – a year after the Government had trebled the annual cost of an undergraduate degree to £9,000 a year – saying that they would implement the policy “if we were in government now”, but have yet to set out their commitments for the upcoming general election.

In the letter, the UUK board members say the financial implications of a fee reduction would lead to “cuts to universities that would damage the economy, affect the quality of students’ education, and set back work on widening access to higher education.”

They also say that a cut in the headline tuition fee amount without changes to loan repayment conditions would mean the policy would benefit higher earning graduates the most. This echoes the criticism made by the National Union of Students when the policy was originally floated in 2011, who produced figures saying the change in the level of fees would make no difference to the amount those earning under £35,000 repaid.

“Given that fees are not paid until after a student graduates and is earning over £21,000, simply cutting the headline fee provides most benefit to higher-earning graduates. A better way of supporting students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, would be for the Government to provide greater financial support for living costs”, the UUK letter said.

SOAS Director Professor Paul Webley has previously said the current funding settlement for higher education is “not sustainable” and ” is constraining our income in a serious way “. Whilst he wouldn’t favour increasing the amount universities can charge, Webley argues the lack of inflationary rises to the current fee means the £9,000 sum is eroded over time in real terms.

Responding to the letter, Labour’s higher education spokesperson Liam Byrne said “The Tory-led government trebled fees and now it is crystal clear that the student finance system is going bust, saddling students with debts most will never repay of £43,500 on average, and costing the taxpayer more than the system it replaced.”

“According to new UCAS analysis, trebled fees have deterred thousands of potential students applying.”
Byrne has previously said that university heads should not risk being “on the wrong side of the public” by opposing a tuition fee cut.
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which is demanding the abolition of tuition fees, has condemned both Labour’s proposal and the UUK letter. They say “This is why the fight for free education can’t just be centred around the ballot box….We need to organise to fight back at them.”
“If Labour want to have more success, they should offer something that’s worth arguing for.”









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