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UK Russell Group: Gimme more!

Should ‘better’ universities be allowed to charge higher tuition fees? According to the prestigious UK Russell Group, an association of 24 leading UK universities, yes. Oxford vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton reignited the debate about the current limit on tuition fees of GBP 9 000 for English universities. In a speech given at an annual Oxford university gathering, Hamilton pointed out the funding problem faced by renowned research universities such as Oxford. The current student contributions in form of tuition fees only offset the cuts in government spending, but do not tackle the problem of Oxford’s shortfall in undergraduate education of up to GBP 70 million per year. One reason for this problem lies supposedly in the tuition fee cap of GBP 9 000 applying to all English universities. This would not reflect the idea of a market within which “different universities charging significantly different amounts” would not feel “inherently unnatural”.

Hamilton’s speech sparked a new debate about tuition fees in the UK, with supporters questioning the logics behind the GBP 9000 limit charged by almost all English universities and opponents calling for publicly funded higher education system. Tuition fees were introduced in 1998 requiring students to pay up to GBP 1000. The ceiling was steadily raised, however, it was only with the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, better known as Brown Review, which paved the way for the current tuition fee level of GBP 9000 introduced in 2012 (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, October 2010, November 2010, and November 2012). Raising or even abolishing the current cap on tuition fees could solve the funding problem of UK universities, however, it might also run risk of making higher education barely affordable. According to Director General of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, presumably the rise in tuition fees has not constituted any obstacle to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, as student numbers even have increased. 

Raising or eliminating the current tuition fee cap would most surely entail a further liberalisation of the English fee regime, pushing English universities towards a more US American style higher education system with a price for higher education which would ultimately reflect the interaction between supply and demand. However, it most certainly also leads to a partly unstable system of student loans, putting off those who are reluctant in starting their professional life in debt. Yet, supporters of a further liberalised tuition fee regime argue in favour of personal responsibility and the logics of the market which does not and should not make an exception to education. The question is whether market structures are the suitable model for higher education. But maybe market structures are not a solution to everything. 

Oxford Vice-Chancellor speech

Russell Group on BBC Newsnight

Russell Group broadcast appearances