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United Kingdom: Funding of higher education and fees remain hot topics

The decision by the British Parliament taken in December 2010 to allow universities to raise tuition fees from current level  (slightly over GBP 3 000) to between GBP 6 000 and 9 000 annually, (See ACA Newsletter - Education Europe, December 2010) continues to create ripples across the UK. After Oxford and Cambridge had indicated they would go to the maximum, it was expected that at least the members of the Russell Group would follow suit. But it now appears possible that the majority of tertiary institutions would go to the limit. This, anyway, is what the UK Minister for Universities and Sciences, David Willets, appears to fear. He recently warned less prestigious institutions not to set their fees at the top end, on the grounds they might be unable to attract enough students at GBP 9 000 annually. However, some observers believe that Willets’ real concern is that such behaviour would cost the government dearly. The government must finance the tuition fees up front; students starting their course in September 2012 or later will only pay back once they have graduated and earn an annual salary over GBP 21 000 (pending parliamentary approval). In the short term, the higher the fees, the more expensive it becomes for the government to finance the higher education system.

Although Wales is subject to the British Parliament decision, things are developing somewhat differently there—and positively for Welsh students. The basic tuition fees will rise to GBP 6 000 per year beginning in 2012/13, and universities will be allowed to charge up to GBP 9 000 per year as from that point if they widen access sufficiently. However, Welsh students will benefit from an “assembly government grant” to cover any tuition costs over GBP 3 290 at any institution in Wales or the UK. This effectively shields Welsh students from the tuition increases. And while students from elsewhere in the European Union studying in Wales would also benefit from the subsidy applied to Welsh students, those from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be required to pay the higher fees. Indeed, the financial plan on which the Welsh subsidy is built relies on this income from these non-Welsh UK students.

Meanwhile, the introduction of tuition fees in hitherto fee-free Scotland looks like a real option. In response to a green paper produced by Education Secretary Mike Russell outlining six options for the future funding of higher education, Universities Scotland and the rectors’ conference proposed the introduction of tuition fees around the levels currently in place in England and Wales, i.e. slightly over GBP 3 000 per academic year.

Finally, in connection with the introduction of higher fees, Aaron Porter, the President of the National Union of Students, will stand down in the summer. Porter had been criticised by students as not opposing the fee increase vigorously enough.

UK Government – Department for Business Innovation & Skills

UK Government – 2012/13 tuition fees and student finance Wales - Times Higher Education and BBC press reports National Union of Students