Universities react to higher education policy proposals

In Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s speech on the Government’s higher education policy he pledged to get more “disadvantaged young people” into higher education, improve teaching and make higher education “better value for money” for both students and taxpayers. However question marks remain over fees and whether the whole process could become more expensive for students.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson
Universities Minister Jo Johnson

Prior to yesterday’s speech, Johnson was challenged in parliament on Tuesday when Labour MP Liam Byrne asked “Will tuition fees go up in this parliament?”

Johnson replied: “Due to the financial situation we inherited, we [BiS] are of course forced to review all spend – as all departments are reviewing their spend.

“As our manifesto made clear, the government are committed to continuing to ensure that we have a stable and sustainable funding regime for our universities and higher education institutions.”

The three pledges that Johnson set out were as follows:

“Firstly, lifting the cap on student numbers and widening participation, so that we remove barriers to ambition and meet the PM’s commitment to double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020 from 2009 levels.

“Secondly, delivering a teaching excellence framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect.

“Thirdly, driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system, so that we ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms.”

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But what do the universities think?

University of the Arts London comprises colleges including Camberwell College, Chelsea College of Arts and London College of Communication. In a statement made to Design Week, UAL vice-chancellor Nigel Carrington responds vociferously to the issues around funding and the proposition of further hikes in tuition fees.

Carrington’s main bone of contention is that while the Government steps in to subsidise core subjects like science and maths, where expensive equipment is needed, it fails to provide similar funding provisions for design and other creative subjects where tools and equipment are equally necessary.

He says: “We must stop pretending that hikes in tuition fees can solve the higher education funding crisis.

Raising tuition fees will not solve anything

“It is not in the public interest to charge the student the full cost of provision in some subjects. We need to top up the student’s fee with state support, especially where courses are very expensive to provide.

“There is precedent for this. The Government still massively subsidises key courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. It recognises that machinery, labs, workshops and technicians cost more to provide than students could bear in fees. It therefore steps in to guarantee the supply of talent to a strategically important industry.

“The creative industries are the fastest growing sector in the UK, worth £72billion a year to the economy. Graduate education is a requirement of 60% of jobs in the sector. Creative education universities have to provide specialised machinery, workshops and technicians. But we have no specialist subsidy.

Undergraduate and post graduate courses run at a loss

“The fact is that undergraduate and postgraduate courses in many courses run at a loss on the UK tuition fee threshold. In our case, the margin is nearly 10%. We are forced to cover this through cross-subsidy. But why should students make up the difference?”

The Universities Alliance Group comprises dozens of UK universities including Bournemouth University, Coventry University, Kingston University, Liverpool John Moores University, Manchester Metropolitan University, Nottingham Trent University. Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance is calling on Government to retain Student Opportunity Funding. The fund recognises that it costs universities more to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students with disabilities, so it subsidises this process.

Ansell says: “We need a higher education system offering high quality teaching and learning to everyone with the ability and aspiration to go to university. We are up for the challenge of helping to develop a teaching excellence framework that will incentivise universities to do this and welcome the indication that this will include measures for retention and progression.

“Many of our students come from the local area and nearly 40% of those are from non-traditional backgrounds.  Nearly two-thirds of our graduates stay in the cities and regions in which they have studied, helping their communities to thrive and grow.

The government must maintain Student Opportunity Funding

“This is why we call on government to maintain Student Opportunity Funding. It is the only funding awarded to universities based on the genuine added costs of recruiting and retaining widening participation students.  It has proven to be crucial not just in improving social mobility and ensuring cities and regions have access to wider, more diverse talent for growth, but also in ensuring the Treasury maximises the return on its investment in higher education.

“We hope the Chancellor bears this in mind ahead of the emergency Budget next week.”

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