Ministers' tuition fees exemption proposals panned

6 Dec 10
Government proposals to exempt the least well-off students from some of their university tuition fees were criticised today.
By David Williams

6 December 2010

Government proposals to exempt the least well-off students from some of their university tuition fees were criticised today.

Universities minister David Willetts announced yesterday that the poorest students would have a year’s tuition funded by the state. The grants, which would rise to two years’ fees for an elite university charging more than £6,000 a year, would be paid for through the £150m National Scholarship Programme.

Willetts said the measure would be targeted at 18,000 students who had received free school meals and other, unspecified, ‘disadvantaged groups’.

The move was intended to calm concern over wider reforms to the way that universities in England are funded, which will raise the student fee cap to £9,000 from 2013 (up from £3,290 currently) and has resulted in a surge of public protests.  

But doubt has been cast on whether free school meals are the best way of ensuring the right students are funded.

Chris Goulden, policy and research manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told Public Finance the plans were ‘better than nothing at all’ but there were several problems with the proposals.

He said: ‘Free school meals are only for people who are on certain benefits – if you are in low-paid work you may be in poverty but your children will not be eligible.

‘People go in and out of work, and in and out of poverty – you may be eligible when you’re assessed, but it could be a temporary thing. It does not seem fair that this should be based on a short-term assessment of need.’

Goulden added that there was also the potential for a ‘cliff-edge’, in which pupils who narrowly miss the criteria for free school meals would be at a disadvantage compared to those in very similar circumstances who do qualify.

A better system, he said, would be linked to the planned Universal Credit, which is proposed to take into account most benefits and have a system of tapers to allow allocations to be graded.

Martin Freedman, head of pay and pensions at the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, said the use of free school meals to indicate who was most in need of help was 'disturbing', adding: 'there is some more work to be done on indicators of disadvantage.'

He also said ATL's internal research cast doubt on Willetts's claim that the measures would help 18,000 students. 'I can't get anywhere near that figure', he said, estimating that 10,500 was a more likely annual figure.

George Phipson, advisor to the National Association of Head Teachers on funding, outlined further problems with using the free school meals criteria.  

‘Quite a number of local authorities have moved over to measures of multiple deprivation to fund disadvantaged pupils,’ he said. ‘They can see free school meals is a rough and ready indicator, when you consider it’s an “on-off” measure and there can be significant differences between entitlement and take-up.’

Heather Joshi, of the Institute for Education, added that free school meals which gives families an incentive to keep income low and stay on benefits. But, 'if there is to be a "sheep and goats" rule, it is probably no worse than any other', she said.

MPs are set to vote on plans to raise the cap on university tuition fees on Thursday. The vote is expected put to test the strength of the coalition partners, with Liberal Democrats threatening to abstain or vote against the plans.

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