Coalition under pressure over access to higher education

By staff writers
May 18, 2010

The Vice-Chancellors of the UK's leading universities have triggered a negative reaction by calling on the new government to lift the cap on tuition fees. The Russell Group, which represents the most 'elite' institutions, argued that universities should be allowed to set their own fees, rather than be restricted to £3,000, as at present.

But the University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic staff, warned that lifting the cap would be “the most regressive piece of education policy since the war”.

Last week, the Liberal Democrats came in for criticism from both the UCU and the National Union of Students (NUS) for compromising on tuition fees as part of their coalition deal with the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Democrats had previously pledged to vote against all proposed increases in tuition fees and to work towards scrapping fees altogether. While the coalition agreement is ambiguous on the issue, it is expected that the Conservative Party would tolerate Liberal Democrat MPs abstaining on fees, but not voting against the government.

But the agreement does refer to the need to “attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds”. UCU warn that a fee increase would put university “out of reach for the majority” of the population.

The Union argues that inequality of access to higher education is already threatening the country’s success.

They point to research showing that just 13 per cent of 15-year-olds in receipt of free school meals go to university, compared to the average of 33 per cent. Educational under-achievement is estimated to cost £18 billion a year, according to the Prince's Trust.

UCU say that their plans for a Business Education Tax (BET) are the first coherent attempts at making business, rather than students, pay for the numerous benefits it gets from UK higher education and would allow the UK to abolish tuition fees altogether.

The Union will promote the idea when they give oral evidence to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (the 'Browne Review') this Thursday (20 May).

“Raising tuition fees would be the most regressive piece of education policy since the war and put university out of reach for the majority,” said the UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt, “We desperately need to move away from the idea that the current review of student funding is merely a question of how much student fees go up by”.

She added, “It is time for business rather than students and their families to make a fair contribution. Our proposals to increase corporation tax to fund our universities would still leave it at a lower rate than when the Conservative Party was last in power.”


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