Watch this space: pressing deadlines may see prospectuses without prices

January 27, 2011

Many universities will find it "well nigh impossible" to publish tuition fees for the 2012-13 academic year in their undergraduate prospectuses because of the length of time it will take to reach agreements on fair access with the regulator, it has emerged.

Despite the government's alacrity in pushing its fee cap rise through Parliament with a view to enabling prospectuses to list prices, many institutions are expected to avoid committing to a final level until they are clearer about access conditions.

Instead, they will follow guidance from the Office for Fair Access, which suggests that they tell students to check online later in the year.

This month brings production deadlines for some institutions' prospectuses to meet February publication targets, making it difficult for vice-chancellors to clear fee levels through their departmental and governance structures in time.

But a greater hurdle lies in the fact that institutions are still awaiting detailed guidance on how to draw up access agreements - which institutions must agree with Offa if they wish to charge more than £6,000 - and more information about the national scholarship programme.

Offa's deadline for approving access agreements is the end of June.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, said: "There are a number of unknown factors involved with access agreements and the national scholarship programme, which will make it well nigh impossible for universities to agree fee levels in time for publication of prospectuses."

Meanwhile, there are signs that the decision on fees at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge may be subject to a vote by academics.

Democratic governance structures at the two ancient universities mean scholars can force a final say on the issue. It has already been debated at Cambridge and is set to be discussed at Oxford during a meeting of congregation - its "parliament" - on 8 February.

Oxford's process for deciding fees was published last week in the Gazette, the university's official journal. It said the university's council would decide on fees during a meeting on 14 March and the outcome would be published on 17 March.

Although fees will be agreed by the council, it would take only a small number of academics to force the decision to be reviewed and then, potentially, to be voted on by congregation.

Votes on student finance have a precedent at Oxford. In 2003 a postal ballot was forced on the issue of whether variable fees would harm access, but those raising concerns were eventually defeated by a majority of more than 100.

Last week, Cambridge's democratic assembly, the Regent House, heard at least a dozen academics speak out against the government's reforms. Some called for the university's decision on fees to be subject to a "grace" - a resolution that could be put to a vote.

Brendan Burchell, an admissions tutor at Magdalene College from 2003 to 2008, said the reforms threatened in "one fell swoop" to undo "all of those hard-fought for improvements, achieved percentage point by percentage point, year on year, that Cambridge has seen in its representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds".

Among those in attendance was Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice-chancellor, who later told student newspaper Varsity that tuition fees "will have to be towards the higher end" of the £9,000 cap.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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