Failure to inform: Ucas chief says £1.5m ad campaign on fees misses mark

May 12, 2011

A new government advertising campaign about higher tuition fees is failing to explain a "key message" of the reforms to students, the official in charge of the admissions system has told a cross-party group of MPs.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that from what she had seen, the communications push launched this week did not highlight that higher education would be affordable whatever fee was charged.

Giving evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on 10 May for its inquiry into the future of higher education, she said it had to be clearly explained that monthly repayments on student loans would be the same, even at the maximum fee level.

"I do think a key message has been missed so far and that is that the affordability (of repayments) is the same whether you have chosen a £6,000 or £9,000 course, and that is a critical piece of information," she said.

"I am engaged in meetings with various groups and we will push for that information to be made more open," she added.

The comments came just two days after the launch of the campaign, which will initially cost £1.5 million, and follows months of criticism that ministers have failed to communicate their reforms for student finance in the 2012-13 academic year.

Designed by marketing agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe Y&R, the campaign is using radio and newspaper advertisements, as well as internet sites popular with teenagers, to deliver a message that students will not face any upfront cost for tuition fees, which will reach £9,000 at many universities.

The committee also heard from Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, who confirmed that he did not have the legal power to force universities to lower tuition fees if they had proposed acceptable access agreements.

Asked by the committee chair, Labour MP Adrian Bailey, if there were "no grounds" to limit fees if a university had put forward proposals that were a "genuine attempt" to broaden access, Sir Martin replied: "That is correct."

He added that it was also "precisely some of those universities that maybe ministers might have hoped would charge less that actually make some of the greatest efforts to ensure the social inclusivity of their entry".

He added that his role was not to "punish" universities but to "persuade" them to improve access, and he said he expected them to make "all necessary efforts" to adapt access agreements so that they could charge the proposed fees.

He suggested that when ministers had claimed universities would charge £9,000 only in "exceptional circumstances", it was not completely understood that Offa's legal powers covered access agreements rather than tuition fees.

Meanwhile, in a later session, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told the committee that the government's reforms would give England the type of funding system tried in only a small number of places, including Kazakhstan.

But he stressed that his personal opinion was that tuition fees were "important" and "necessary", and that the English approach was one of the most "progressive" in the world - although the country had "stumbled" upon the formula after years of wrangling.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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