Blow away the confusion

Amid chill budgetary winds, institutions and students need clarity from the government about access and fees, Paul Marshall argues

January 6, 2011

Credit: Benjamin Mills

The recent spate of arctic weather has been nothing new for those of us in higher education, who have been contending with frosty conditions throughout 2010. The budget cuts of the Comprehensive Spending Review and resistance to tuition fee rises have blown a chill wind through lecture theatres up and down the country. However, we end the Christmas break with a degree of certainty over the future funding of the sector. No one is happy with the sweeping cuts to direct investment, but the enhanced levels of graduate contribution now approved by Parliament mean that institutions are assured of alternative income sources.

I suspect, though, that this respite will not last long, and 2011 will quickly see a return to questions over the future of the sector. My prediction for the new year is that the higher education White Paper will reveal that the funding changes have been only the start of a fundamentally transformative programme of reform. We are going to see a more diversified set of institutions meeting the needs of better-informed students who have direct control over where funding flows.

There are two vital issues the government has to be very clear on from the start of the year: the conditions that institutions must meet to levy annual undergraduate tuition fees of more than £6,000, and the shape the proposed national scholarship programme is going to take.

As things stand, the picture is unclear. The draft guidance to the Office for Fair Access (Offa) is encouragingly open, allowing institutions that can justify fees higher than £6,000 the flexibility to devise the access agreements that best suit their circumstances. But at the same time, some of the rhetoric around the national scholarship programme is worryingly prescriptive, with talk of imposing uniform obligations on institutions to match government contributions in ways not of their own devising. If, as seems certain, levying fees of more than £6,000 will be dependent on successfully bidding to be part of the scholarship programme, institutions will quickly need answers about the scheme.

Universities need to know who will be judging bids, and against what criteria. Will it be Offa, on the same basis that it judges access agreements? Institutions will also need to know whether national scholarship programme bids can be accepted even though access agreements have not been accepted, and vice versa. And they need to know the breadth of coverage the scholarship programme is intended to have, and particularly whether excellent bids could be rejected because too many good bids have already been received.

The government must make answering these questions a priority. Institutions need to be able to set fees and devise widening participation plans based on clear and transparent information about the obligations to which they will be held. And prospective students need access, as early as possible, to information about the levels and types of support that will be available to them.

Offa is currently devising the process by which access agreements will be drawn up, and the government has convened a working group to design the national scholarship programme. I hope that the result is a straightforward process along the following lines.

First, institutions wishing to levy fees above £6,000 should apply to do so through the access agreements they draw up with Offa. These should be flexible and recognise that each institution works within its own particular context. Agreements must account for this and allow institutions to put forward the widening participation measures that best suit them.

Second, and separately, all institutions should be invited to bid for a share of the national scholarship programme money by demonstrating how they will use it to complement their own efforts to widen participation. Institutions levying fees above £6,000 should be expected to match national scholarship programme funds with cash of their own or from business or charitable sources, although there should be no restrictions on the type of activity for which the combined funds will pay. The onus will be on the institutions themselves to devise the widening participation activity that best works for them, and the right to participate in the national scholarship programme will be awarded based on innovation and effectiveness.

The coming year will be as challenging for higher education as the one that has just drawn to a close. The young people who have been protesting on the streets must have icy clarity on the student support that is on offer. This must be our overriding priority as we begin 2011.

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