Offa may get legal teeth if too many set £9,000 fees, say Willetts and Cable

The government has threatened to legislate to allow it to intervene in the undergraduate tuition fee levels set by individual universities if too many rush to charge close to £9,000.

February 10, 2011

In a letter to the Director of Fair Access today, David Willetts, the universities minister, and Vince Cable, the business secretary, reassert that fees at the upper end of the new threshold should apply only in “exceptional circumstances”.

“It is, of course, not within your legal powers to impose any quota for how many institutions charge what level of graduate contribution, and that is consistent with our policy of an autonomous higher education sector, where institutions take their own decisions,” the ministers write to Sir Martin Harris.

“But if the sector as a whole appeared to be clustering their charges at the upper end of what is legally possible, and thereby increasing the pressure on public funds, we will have to reconsider what powers are available, including changes to legislation, to ensure there is differentiation in charges.”

The letter adds that the government “intends to keep this under very close review” in 2012-13, the first year of the new fees regime.

The letter to Sir Martin sets out details on access agreements that universities seeking to charge more than £6,000 in annual tuition fees to home and European Union students will have to agree with the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

The agreements will have to be renewed annually, rather than every five years as at present – and Offa will be able to revoke agreements if agreed benchmarks for widening access to students from low-income backgrounds are not met. A university that has its access agreement revoked would no longer be able to charge more than £6,000.

The watchdog will also be able to impose fines of up to £500,000 on a university deemed not to be fulfilling its side of the bargain.

A message that is repeated throughout the letter is that the government does not want universities to charge high fees and then pump the extra money indiscriminately into bursaries.

It points out that higher fees will put a greater strain on the public purse, because the government will have to provide subsidised loans, and indicates that fee waivers, rather than untargeted cash bursaries, are a more affordable approach.

It adds the caveat that this “does not apply to bursaries and scholarships that are well targeted and where there is evidence of impact”.

As Times Higher Education reported this week, controversy has arisen over the University of Cambridge’s proposal to charge tuition fees of £9,000, with a £3,000 waiver for students from poorer backgrounds. Students have been angered by the preference for a discount over a cash-in-hand bursary, as the former does little to help students who struggle with the day-to-day costs of university life.

Mr Willetts’ and Mr Cable’s letter also says that “selective” universities “may want to admit some students [from disadvantaged backgrounds] on the basis of lower entry qualifications than they would normally apply.”

They add that using contextual data to help identify talented students from poorer backgrounds is “a valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access”.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

• Read the letter in full at: http://bit.ly/f1Qgzg

Coalition attaches widening-access strings to top-rate fees

Universities will be forced to choose from a list of options to help poorer students, including fee waivers and free foundation years, if they want to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 from 2012-13, the government has announced.

Students on full maintenance grants – whose families earn less than £25,000 a year – will be entitled to the benefits under the National Scholarship Programme, which institutions must sign up to in order to charge between £6,000 and £9,000 a year.

The value of each package – which can also be made up of bursaries or discounts on accommodation – will be equivalent to at least £3,000, with universities expected to contribute to boost the £50 million in public money set aside to fund the scheme in its first year.

Details of the National Scholarship Programme were outlined as the government published its final letter of guidance to the Office for Fair Access on how universities charging more than £6,000 should be judged on attracting poorer students (see story, above).

Institutions have until the end of March to write to Offa with their proposed agreements.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, warned that despite efforts by the government to discourage too many institutions from charging fees close to the £9,000 maximum, institutions would still have to consider such fee levels to replace the funding lost from government cuts.

“Universities will be looking very carefully at the small print to make sure that they will be able to levy the fees that they believe are required to deliver a quality student experience for all students in the face of an unprecedented cut in direct public investment in higher education,” she said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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