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December 17, 2010

An exceptional explanation from Vince Cable on tuition fees

"Exceptional" has been the word. Vince Cable and David Willetts have used it over and over again to describe the circumstances in which universities will be allowed to charge over £6,000 a year in tuition fees.

For example, in the crunch debate in the House of Commons last Thursday, Cable said, "... That involves the introduction of a fee cap of £6,000, rising to £9,000 in exceptional circumstances."

But what does "exceptional" really mean? Simon Hughes asked Cable this in the debate, and got this reply:

"That is a highly pertinent question in the light of the experience of the last Government, who had a two-tier system. There was a migration of all universities to the top of the range. They operated, in effect, like a cartel, and that must be stopped. It must not happen again, and there are several means by which that will happen. First, any university that wants to go beyond £6,000 will have to satisfy very demanding tests of access for low-income families, including through the introduction of the scholarship scheme. Newer institutions, particularly further education colleges providing accredited courses, will drive down the cost of high quality basic teaching. If universities defy the principle of operating on a competitive cost basis, it may well be necessary to introduce additional measures to observe the principle that my hon. Friend has correctly summarised, which is that-


I am simply saying that there are potentially other mechanisms by which universities that exceed the £6,000 level will not be allowed to behave in the way that they behaved under the last Government."

That gives a kind of an answer to how the government will enforce the exceptionalism. What it doesn't do is to tell us what we should understand by "exceptional". The word itself seems to me to suggest that maybe 10 per cent at the most would be allowed to go to £9,000, but most people in universities are assuming many more universities will be allowed past the £6,000 cap.

Fortunately, the government has produced a draft "explanatory memorandum" that sets out how the statutory instrument that Parliament has now approved should be interpreted. This is important because it moves us out of the realm of rhetoric and into the realm of legislative force. And paragraph 7.7 explains what the government intends on this:

"We are also proposing to allow some universities to charge above £6,000 and up to £9,000 (or above £3,000 and up to £4,500 where a shorter tuition period in the circumstances set out in paragraph 7.6 above). The Higher Amount Regulations which are annexed to this memorandum, give effect to these higher limits. HEIs that wish to charge above £6,000 and up to £9,000 in tuition charges will be required to draw up an access agreement with OFFA, whose role is defined in the Act."

You will note that there is no mention of the word "exceptional" there (or elsewhere in the memo). Instead, we are told simply that "some" universities will be allowed to charge over £6,000.

Cable and Willetts can still make good on their exceptional promise in the coming white paper on higher education. But the explanatory memorandum suggests the government is already half way to abandoning it. Look out in the New Year for any sightings of the word. If not, you may want to conclude that another pledge is in the process of being broken.


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Despite being opposed to higher fees, I'd be worried if the government does make it truly exceptional for universities to charge more than £6,000. The removal of state funding will, for most universities, require them to charge considerably more than £6,000 simply to break even - the estimate from millionplus was, I think, £7,400. If there is an effective cap at £6,000 for all but the Russell Group and a few top redbricks, we'll have a situation where students are paying much more and getting significantly less.

Well I think students will pay more and universities will get less. When there are deep cuts across the public sector, I just can't see the government letting universities walk away from this with a bag of swag. As for whether students end up getting less, I'm a cynic. I think we're going to get love-bombed with rhetoric but no effective action. Just like last time.

On balance, with one child heading to University next September, I think the increase is just part of the harsh reality of the current economy. I accept that if you want to succeed in an increasingly competitive world, you have to work harder and make more sacrifices than everybody else (your competition). Instead of debating if it is right or wrong, I choose to plan financially for how I can accommodate the impact within my (limited) personal budget choices.

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