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UK: Government proposals on student funding take shape

Specific information on the UK government’s approach to reforming higher education finance emerged in November. Following October’s release of both the Browne Report and the Spending Review (see ACA Newsletter Education - Europe, October 2010) the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, appeared before Parliament on 3 November 2010 to present the Statement on Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. In doing so, he put forward the official proposals for university tuition, maintenance grants and loans; a new merit scholarship scheme for low-income students; and student loan repayment terms.

Many of the proposals take their cue from ideas articulated in the Browne Report, but do not conform precisely to those suggestions.  For example, the government proposes that there be a cap on tuition of GBP 6 000 (EUR 7 000), although any university or college may charge less than this. Institutions will be able to set their tuition rates independently, but in the exceptional case that they are approved to charge an extraordinary amount of up to GBP 9 000 (EUR 10 600), they will be accountable to the government for meeting “much tougher conditions on widening participation and fair access”. Failing to do so may result in loss of the right to charge more than the GBP 6 000 cap. No students (including part-timers carrying at least one-third of a full-time load) will be required to pay up-front fees, with the government lending any eligible student the money to pay for tuition costs. Repayment of these loans will be 9% of income above GBP 21 000 (EUR 24 800) per year, with the introduction of a real interest rate on a “progressive taper.  A new National Scholarships Programme, funded at a level of GBP 150 million (EUR 177 million), “will be targeted on bright potential students from poor backgrounds” and will guarantee such benefits as a “free first year or foundation year”. And those institutions charging about GBP 6 000 will be obliged to participate in the National Scholarships Programme. According to the government, the goal is to implement these changes for the 2012/13 academic year.

The government asserts that “overall this is a good deal for universities and for students”; key stakeholder groups are less enthusiastic. Universities UK has opposed the Spending Review’s call to remove so much public funding for higher education, although acknowledges the government’s proposals as the best way to replace the lost public funds.  Some students and faculty are furious, however. More than 50 000 students and faculty members (according to press reports) staged a protest in London against the proposed reforms in early November, resulting in arrests and injuries. A sizeable number of sit-ins and walk-outs also occurred across the country on 24 November, and the country’s National Union of Students has launched a “Right to Recall” campaign, encouraging students to pledge to vote against “any candidate that breaks their pledges on university fees or EMAs [educational maintenance allowances]”. The stakes are high in this debate; tempers are clearly running high, too.

UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills