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Tuition fee developments across the UK (part 2): England

As in Northern Ireland and Scotland, developments in England on the tuition fee front have also been fluid of late.

On 8 September The Guardian (amongst others) reported that up to 12 universities in England might be interested in lowering their tuition fees for 2012/13, despite official publication of higher fees back in July (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, July 2011). These institutions have apparently been enticed by the knowledge (made available only after they made their tuition decisions in early summer) that offering lower tuition can allow them to bid for some of the 20 000 full-time undergraduate places which have been reserved for institutions charging tuition fees under GBP 7 500 (EUR 8 629) per year. And even before the first round of new tuition rates have been implemented and student loans issued, a liberal think tank, Centre Forum, has released a report urging the government not to implement any scheme that will penalise students who re-pay these loans early. Amongst their various arguments against this idea, Centre Forum cites the fact that such a scheme would more likely hurt low-income, debt averse borrowers, and “create another complexity while covering only a minority of loans”.

In a very different vein, In Defence of Public Higher Education, a document signed by hundreds of UK academics, was publicly unveiled on 27 September. The “alternative white paper” was crafted by the Campaign for the Public University, a working group of academics and students, galvanised by a common interest in refuting what they see as the government’s single-mindedly market-oriented white paper of June 2011 (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, June 2011). Organised around nine propositions about the value of public higher education, this document makes an unequivocal plea for “recognition that market relations cannot encompass all social relations, and that there are important social conditions that are necessary for markets to flourish”. Notably, the authors point out that England will have the highest average level of student fees amongst OECD countries once the new fee structure is implemented in 2012.

Finally, the month of September saw the release of The Financial Health of the Higher Education Sector, produced by the financial and business advising firm Grant Thornton. Analysing published accounts from 155 higher education institutions in 2009/10, the company found that the sector is in overall decent shape to face the government’s proposed funding changes, based on a significantly strengthened financial position over the previous year. They credit this development to increased tuition income and flat wage costs. Amongst the key challenges ahead, however, are the likely inconsistent effects across the sector of the country’s higher education funding changes, particularly in relation to the uncertain evolution of student numbers (domestic and international), reduced Funding Council Grants and research monies, and, of course, tuition fees.

The Guardian Campaign for the Public University

Grant Thornton