Vice-chancellors have been accused of complacency and arrogance after “fantasising” about more than doubling tuition fees even as the recession worsens.
The charge was levelled by the National Union of Students in response to a study published today on the future of fees. The report, produced for Universities UK by the consultancy CRA International, sets out eight possible scenarios, all based on the assumption that the cap will increase to either £5,000 or £7,000 a year. It is based on official sector data as well as interviews with 12 vice-chancellors from different types of institution.
Although the research has been welcomed by some in the sector, including the Russell Group of large research-led universities, it has provoked anger in other quarters.
Standing alongside the NUS, which balked at the prediction that student debt could double to an average of £32,000, was the University and College Union, which said that any increase in fees would be “incredibly unpopular”.
Politicians have also weighed in despite the efforts to delay the political debate on fees until after the next general election.
Despite UUK’s insistence that it was not championing any of the models analysed, Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrats’ Universities Spokesman, said it was “no surprise that many vice-chancellors… would like to see fees more than doubled”.
Reaffirming his party’s position that fees should be scrapped, he said: “The conclusions would be very different if students’ views were considered.”
Although the Conservatives have been seen as being in cahoots with the Government in stalling the fees debate, which was promised this year, the report prompted David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, to warn that while his party remained keen to work with Labour on a bipartisan basis, it “could not wait for ever” for the review.
Meanwhile, Labour MPs raised concerns about any increase to the current fee cap of £3,145 a year in an early day motion in Parliament.
Paul Farrelly MP, who tabled the motion, said: “I oppose introducing a market system in higher education, like in the US, which many elitists want. We need to increase participation by students from poorer backgrounds, not price them out of going to university at all.”
The study asked 12 vice-chancellors for their views on fees. Their estimates of what would be a long-term sustainable fee ranged from £4,500 to £8,000 a year, and the fees they felt they could charge annually without affecting student demand varied from £6,000 to £10,000.
The study concludes that increasing the fee to £5,000 a year will have no impact on student numbers regardless of when students are made to pay and what support is in place.
By contrast, increasing the cap to £7,000 a year is shown to affect demand in all but one of the scenarios, in the most extreme case forcing student numbers down by as much as 100,000 by 2016.
As the report is written from an economic perspective, it does not take into account such issues as how politically palatable the different options may be.
Tim Wilsdon, the vice-president of CRA International, said he was “particularly uneasy” about the prediction in one of the scenarios that an upfront fee of £7,000 a year, charged on a means-tested basis, would have no adverse effect on student demand.
In fact, the other three scenarios in which the fee is raised to £7,000 forecast a significant decline in student numbers, and Mr Wilsdon said that this elasticity of demand would be influenced by parental income and would affect each institution differently.
This, he said, could lead to the creation of a real market as universities choose to differentiate themselves by price – something that did not happen with the introduction of variable fees because almost every institution opted to charge the maximum sum available.
The report also looks at the impact of different fee models on university income, which Rick Trainor, president of UUK and principal of King’s College London, has said must increase if the sector is to maintain its reputation as “world class”.
And it considers the impact on the total government subsidy to the sector; on student debt (which ranged from an average of £21,829 to £32,557); and on universities’ bursary expenditure.
Professor Trainor emphasis
ed that any changes that are made to the fees regime would have to be accompanied by changes to protect the sector’s commitment to widening participation.
However, Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, said that it was “extremely arrogant” of vice-chancellors to be “fantasising” about charging students higher fees, particularly in the context of the dire economic climate.
He was particularly unhappy that the report appears to “assume that higher fees are inevitable”.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of the Million+ think-tank for new universities, said the study’s failure to take part-time students into account was very unhelpful.
“It completely ignores them – how can you put out a report on fees that ignores 42 per cent of students?” he said.