The 19 English board members of Universities UK today launched a pre-emptive attack on the policy – which Labour has been considering taking into the election but on which it is yet to take a final decision – with a letter in The Times.
The signatories, led by Sir Christopher Snowden, the UUK president and University of Surrey vice-chancellor, say: “Were this to happen, at least £10bn of additional public funding would need to be found and ring-fenced over the course of the next Parliament to close the gap.
“Given the many pressures on public finances, and with all political parties committed to further public spending cuts, it is implausible that any incoming government would be able to do this. The result would be cuts to universities that would damage the economy, affect the quality of students’ education, and set back work on widening access to higher education.”
There have been suggestions that Labour may soon announce plans for a wide-ranging review of higher education if it were in government. That could give the party cover to avoid announcing a detailed fees and funding policy before the election.
The UUK letter continues: “Any move to limit the number of students attending universities as a way of reducing costs would remove opportunities for young people and those seeking to return to education, and act as a barrier to economic growth.
“Applications to university are now at a record high and the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups has risen. Given that fees are not paid until after a student graduates and is earning over £21,000, simply cutting the headline fee provides most benefit to higher-earning graduates.”
The letter argues that a “better way of supporting students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, would be for the government to provide greater financial support for living costs”.
And it concludes: “Cutting the fee cap does not help poorer students and risks the quality of education for all.”
Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, warned last year that vice-chancellors would be “on the wrong side of public opinion” and invite criticism of their high salaries if they publicly came out against a £6,000 fee policy.
Mr Byrne said in response to the UUK letter: “The Tory-led government trebled fees and now it is crystal clear that the student finance system is going bust, saddling students with debts most will never repay of £43,500 on average, and costing the taxpayer more than the system it replaced.
“According to new Ucas analysis, trebled fees have deterred thousands of potential students applying.
“We will announce our policy in due course ahead of the general election.”