University fee limits should be removed, Browne recommends

12 Oct 10
English universities will be free to charge whatever tuition fees they like under radical new proposals from a government-commissioned review.

By Jaimie Kaffash

12 October 2010

English universities will be free to charge whatever tuition fees they like under radical new proposals from a government-commissioned review.

The former BP boss Lord Browne today published his recommendations for the future of the financing of higher education.  The review proposes that the current fee cap of £3,920 per year be removed. In order to support the poorest students, any institution charging more than £6,000 will be subject to a tapered levy. Those universities charging higher fees will also be required to demonstrate to regulators an increase in the quality of teaching and fairness of admissions.

Business Secretary Vince Cable told Parliament this afternoon that the government welcomed the thrust of the report.

‘There is… a consensus around the idea that there should be no upfront tuition fees for students,’ he said. ‘That would seriously deter students from low and middle-income families. This government is strongly opposed to upfront tuition fees.’

He said the government is considering a cap of £7,000 a year on fees, though ‘many universities may well decide to charge less than that’. Some institutions would be able to charge extra for certain courses, but conditional on fairness measures and improved quality.

Browne also recommended that students only begin repaying the loans that financed their tuition fees once they start earning more than £21,000 a year. Under the new system, called the Student Finance Plan, graduates earning £25,000 will be required to pay £7 a week.

This system will put students ‘in the driving seat’, Browne claimed. It would also mean that the bottom 20% of earners would pay back less than they do under current arrangements. Only the top 40% of graduate earners would pay close to the full amount.

Browne said: ‘Under these plans universities can start to vary what they charge but it will be up to students whether they choose the university.

‘The money will follow the student who will follow the quality. The student is no longer taken for granted, the student is in charge.’

UniversitiesUK, which represents vice chancellors and principals, said the fact that no student would need to pay fees upfront was ‘crucial in supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds through university’. Universities UK president Professor Steve Smith said any deviation from Browne’s blueprint ‘would mean universities having to reduce the number of student places or returning to a period of underfunding’.

However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the 'real winner' of the proposed reforms was the Exchequer, which would save £6,000 for every degree undertaken. Although it agreed that the lowest earning graduates would be better off, on average graduates would be paying at least £5,300 more for each degree. Furthermore, universities would have to charge upwards of £7,000 to recoup their losses from spending cuts.

The University and College Union said Browne's proposals were the 'final nail in the coffin for an affordable university degree for many ordinary families'.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt warned that it would have a negative effect on universities too. 'As a result of this creation of a market for student places, we would see departments and universities close and a devastating effect on the curriculum as only so-called priority courses survive,' she said.

'It would become almost impossible to develop courses in new areas of knowledge without directly perceived economic benefit. If enacted, these proposals will weaken our position as a global knowledge centre.'

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