“here are a great many things wrong with the coalition government’s higher education policies. The latest blunder – a focus on fee waivers over bursaries for poorer students – reveals a worrying contradiction. The government says that students should not be put off by higher fees but at the same time say that fee waivers are necessary in order to stop higher fees having a deterrent effect. The problem is this: fee waivers don’t work.
When the government sledge-hammered through the rise in the tuition fee cap to £9,000 a year in December last year, it did so in the baseless belief that fees above £6,000 would be levied only in “exceptional circumstances”. At worst, they said, the average fee would be £7,500. Moreover, they hadn’t yet put together the rest of the policy that would ensure that the trebling of fees would protect access for poorer students to those few universities they thought would charge the full £9,000. So it came as a surprise to almost no one when university after university said that their headline fee would be at the top of the range, with the implication that government spending on loans would therefore be far higher than expected. The government meanwhile told us to delay our judgment until the higher education white paper and the access agreements between universities and the access regulator, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) had been published. When both the white paper and the access agreements arrived recently, the average fee, when all support was taken into account, was under £8,000. Ministers said that this was a vindication of their faith in introducing a market into higher education, despite absolutely no evidence to support their position.
This miraculous last minute reduction in the average fee was achieved by a widespread concentration in the access agreements on discounted fees for poorer students, rather than on bursaries that put money in students’ pockets to support them while they study. The extraordinary debt David Willetts has attached to university education means that only the highest post-graduation earners will pay back their full debt before the write-off period of 30 years.”