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Universities Minister David “Two Brains” Willetts has given the biggest hint yet that students will be expected to pay higher tuition fees.
Rather than viewing education as an integral part of the economy Mr. Willetts said that the cost of higher education was a “burdenon the taxpayer that had to be tackled,” and that the current loans system was “unsustainable”.
While acknowledging that Higher Education funding is due for review the National Union of Students (NUS) has expressed concern that the language used by Mr Willetts would undermine students.
“There is genuinely imaginative thought in this speech, especially on university accountability, teaching quality and the separation of teaching and examining functions. Care needs to be taken to make sure the action taken in these areas does not lead to the creation of a two-tier system, but these are ideas whose time may have come and are certainly worthy of further discussion,” Aaron Porter, NUS President elect said.
The news which precedes the anticipated findings of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding, suggests that tuition fees will be raised above the present cap of £3,225 a year to as much as £10,000; a figure broadly in line with what universities say is the real per capita annual cost of teaching degree courses.
“We fully support David Willetts’ assertion that reforms to higher education and student funding must be in the best interests of students themselves. Since top-up fees arrived four years ago, universities have failed to account for what they have done with the initial money they got from students’ pockets, let alone what they would do to improve the student experience with even higher fees. The minister says he wants students to think of their contribution as an "additional income tax" so he should rule out a misleading rebrand of fees and loans and implement a single contribution scheme like the one NUS has proposed to the Browne Review,"Aaron Porter said.
Addressing an audience at Oxford Brookes University Mr. Willetts, speaking on behalf of the UK’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat government blamed Labour for not making it clear to students how the system worked. Mr. Willetts told The Guardian newspaper that the system of financing tuition fees through low-interest loans paid back only after a graduate was earning more than £15,000 was “unsustainable” and in need of “radical change.”
The news has troubled the NUS who fear that the Minister’s rhetoric also threratens to undermine the value of universal higher education, "Mr Willetts needs to be careful, however, not to undermine his arguments by casting students as a villain in the debate on public spending. Referring to students as a "burden on the taxpayer" seriously misrepresents the value of investment in higher education and the very real burden of the costs already placed on students themselves. If he steers away from this kind of language, we will be very happy to work with him to develop his vision for new ways for people to access higher education, and for more student empowerment,"Aaron Porter said
With the average graduate student debt, according to a recent YouGov poll, exceeding £30,000, the likely additional tuition fees could leave students with a total debt nearer £50,000.
The UK Coalition Government is a mixture of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MP's who fundementally disagree about whether tuition fees should be raised. Despite the deputy Liberal Democrat leader Simon Hughes being opposed to increasing university tuition fees, because the Conserevative Party is the largest party in the Coalition, it is more likely that fees will be raised significantly, and students from less well off families excluded from university education.
While it is possible to support some of what David Willetts had to say at Oxford Brookes, we are naturally suspicious with the Minister's use of the term 'burden' to describe students.
The article states that the university tuition costs are £10,000, however, that does not necessarily mean that it will be politically possible for government to ask students to pay the whole fee - our opinion is that the rise in tuition fees that students will be asked to pay will be in the region of £5,000 per annum and will probably be phased over future years
The current maximum tuition fees are:
England: £3,225 p.a.
N. Ireland: £3,225 p.a.
Scotland: free to Scots, £1,775 to other UK
Wales: £1,285 to the Welsh, £3,225 to other UK
Students from elsewhere in the EU pay the same as those locally.
Those from outside the EU pay whatever the university charges