In principle this doesn’t sound an altogether bad idea in that it could potentially bring new money into higher education and increase the number of students in the system. It will however make the fee options facing UK and EU students even more complicated. The way things are going, the cost of taking a degree will be even less transparent for potential students than working out the cheapest railway ticket to Edinburgh.
A quick recap: because the government could not bring itself to accept the Browne Review’s proposals to take the cap off home/EU student fees, it is being forced to maintain a quota of places for each higher education institution. This is to keep control of public spending on subsidised student loans for fees, which are predictably clustering around the upper limit of £9k per year – although with some unexpected variations amongst second-tier providers. Another aspect of government policy is the requirement for all higher education providers aiming to charge fees of more than £6k to devote a significant proportion of their extra fee income to encouraging wider participation. In many cases this will mean discounting headline fees by having a system of bursaries and scholarships which will differ from university to university. A further complication has been added by an earlier Willetts suggestion that unfilled quota places could be auctioned off in a kind of reverse auction where universities could expand their quotas by bidding lower than competitors.
How potential students will make sense of this, and of the further complexity of working out the likelihood of them ever having to repay the loans they take out, remains a mystery.
Mr Willetts has already had to issue a ‘clarification’ to answer the critics of his latest brainwave. In response to the fear that extra non-quota places will provide a way for dim but rich kids to get into elite universities, he has had to say that the same entrance standards – UCAS points – will be applied to all students. But then that raises the spectre of two students with similar qualifications being charged different fees for the same course.
This already happens with overseas students, of course, and creates great resentment. In the past when non-European students have complained to me that they get no extra service or facilities for their much higher fees it has been possible to defuse some of their unhappiness by pointing to the government subsidy on home fees. This is no longer going to be the case and I anticipate greater problems with placating overseas students under the new fee regime – their complaints would be amplified under Mr Willetts’ proposals.
The fact is that UK full-cost university fees are often pretty poor value for money. Overseas undergraduates (and postgraduates) massively subsidise UK higher education and their fees are often more than twice what it costs to deliver their education. These costs of delivery are themselves considerably inflated by the employment conditions of university staff, cross-subsidy of research and a web of complicated regulations.
To impose a similar fee regime on this new group of non-quota UK students may provoke a degree of consumer resistance which Mr Willetts does not anticipate.
All-in-all, the government’s fees policy is a mess. Is it really too late to go back to the drawing-board on all this? Nick Clegg, for one, would surely welcome a rethink.