The government’s Green Paper “leaves open” the future prospect of some universities charging significantly more in tuition fees than others, according to one of the figures behind the Browne Review, which called for such a system.
In addition to setting out further details on plans for the teaching excellence framework (TEF), the higher education Green Paper, published on 6 November, also proposes to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, creating a new market-style “sector regulator and student champion” called the Office for Students.
The document, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and titled Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, says that beyond the first year of the teaching excellence framework there will be “three or four” different award levels in the TEF, each resulting in a different fee cap from 2018-19 onwards.
It says that over time “we would expect fees to increasingly differentiate according to the TEF level awarded”.
The government “would not pre-set a formula” for increasing these fee caps, but would “set the uplift each year”, potentially allowing for fee rises every year, “not exceeding real terms increases”.
However, one vice-chancellor, speaking anonymously, said that they could not see “how it will be worth the candle of the regulatory burden to be able to raise fees only by inflation”.
Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, who was the lead civil servant on the Browne Review, said that he read the Green Paper “as leaving open the option of differential fees in the future”.
There are “clear financial incentives for universities to carry out excellent research” and investment in research performance “can pay off”, he added. “That isn’t the case in the same way for teaching; and it will only become the case if there is true differentiation on fees.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: “The Green Paper’s support for variable fees is crystal clear. Unless these proposals are amended, a government that is pro-market will be setting prices without reference to the costs of provision or the impact on students and graduates – the very consumers whom ministers say should be at the heart of the system.”
But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, said: “I've never bought the idea that there are lots of Conservative MPs secretly desperate to introduce much higher fees if only they could. So I doubt if the Green Paper’s proposals are predicated on introducing much higher fees.”
The Green Paper proposes powers for ministers to “set tuition fee caps”. But a BIS spokesman later said that there was no intention to change the status quo, in which all rises above inflation must be voted on by Parliament.
Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, told Times Higher Education that the Green Paper was about “reforming our higher education system so that it’s more effective still at delivering value for money for students, for taxpayers, and does a better job still at delivering the pipeline of graduates we need for a 21st-century economy like ours”.
He said that Hefce’s duties for overseeing the quality system would transfer to the OfS. The regulator could contract with the Quality Assurance Agency as at present if it wished, or “do it in-house”, he added.
Meanwhile, the Green Paper proposes that higher education providers would “subscribe to pay the costs of the OfS as is the case in other regulated sectors”, thus changing the current system, under which Hefce’s costs are funded by the government.
This would deliver a saving for government and extra costs for universities.
Higher education Green Paper: six key proposals
- It was put forward that the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Office for Fair Access would be merged into a single regulator, the Office for Students.
- The teaching excellence framework would create differentiated fee caps according to different levels of award, with the first higher caps made available from 2018-19.
- Universities would be encouraged to adopt the grade point average systems of degree classification: it will be among evidence considered for reaching higher TEF levels.
- The Green Paper commits to a continuation of quality-related research funding, but it is less clear who would distribute the funding once Hefce becomes the OfS.
- New providers would be given “quicker access to student funding” and would be able to become universities and get degree-awarding powers faster.
- Universities would be required to have “contingency” plans for students in the event of financial failure as part of proposals to allow “orderly” exits from the sector.