The UK government has been told to restructure funding for higher education rather than “ply on more debt” for students, after it suggested it was considering allowing universities in England to charge higher fees for accelerated courses.
Currently, tuition fees are capped at £9,000 a year, totalling £27,000 for a three-year degree, although the annual limit is being raised to £9,250 in 2017.
With fee regulations based on one year of tuition, universities offering a condensed two-year degree can only charge a maximum of £18,000, despite these courses often being as expensive to run as a three-year qualification. However, following recommendations by the Competition and Market Authority (CMA) to introduce a “flexible fee cap for accelerated courses”, the government has said it would consider allowing higher fees for shorter degrees, the Daily Telegraph reported.
In a letter to higher education minister Jo Johnson, Andrea Coscelli, acting chief executive of the CMA, wrote that current fee regulations were a disincentive for providers looking to introduce flexible provision. Consequently, it was restricting “the provision of accelerated courses that may be beneficial to students who wish to complete their degree faster”.
In response, Mr Johnson said: “As part of our aim to give more choice to students, we want to see more universities offering accelerated degrees. We recently asked for views from the sector and from students on demand for these courses. We have received over 4,000 responses. We are carefully considering these responses before deciding on next steps.” The Telegraph reported that the government could seek to amend the Higher Education and Research Bill currently going through Parliament to allow more flexible caps on such courses.
The National Union of Students criticised the CMA's recommendations, however, arguing that students should “not be penalised for seeking flexibility in their education”.
“Removing caps would create a chaotic student support system and see students paying an even higher price for the ideological experiments of the Conservative government,” said Sorana Vieru, NUS vice-president for higher education. “We urge this government to restructure funding for HE in order to solve the issue rather than ply more debt over students.
“Students should not be penalised for seeking flexibility in their education and often those courses contribute to widening access and participation, being taken up by students who might not otherwise pursue higher education.”
Sally Hunt, University and College Union general secretary, said two-year degrees "are often touted as a cheaper option because they don’t last for as long, so it would be difficult to make case for shorter courses with higher fees".
"Tinkering around the edges of a failing system is not what is needed and the government should seriously look again at the support for part-time study and not the opening up of an uncapped fee market."
However, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, said the CMA was right to point out that there was a clear disincentive to expanding accelerated-degree provision.
“Allowing for greater flexibility over how fees are paid and how much of a course of study has to be undertaken in any given year would undoubtedly support more students to access higher education and help combat the continuing decline in part-time and older learners,” she said.
The CMA’s proposals come at a time of renewed opposition to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is being debated in the House of Lords on 9 January.
In a statement, the Convention for Higher Education, an initiative of academics and activists in the sector, said that if the bill passed unamended it would risk the UK’s reputation as a destination for high quality tertiary education.
“A student at a UK university knows that their degree programme is being carried out at a university that is strictly quality-controlled by subject experts...and by the government," said John Holmwood, a founding member of the Convention.
“If the bill goes through unamended, this strict regulation will be scrapped, and we are likely to see quality of degrees in the UK go down. We know of the risks from the US and Australia, countries which have gone down this path before us. We don’t need a Trump University...scandal in the UK.”