UK: Four in 10 universities to charge maximum fee

Nearly four in 10 universities in England will charge the maximum £9,000 (US$14,335) tuition fee across all courses, but together they will spend an extra £195 million a year on widening access, the Office for Fair Access has confirmed.

Nearly six in 10 universities will charge £9,000 for some of their courses.

The average fee for higher education institutions in 2012 will be £8,509, dropping to £8,267 after fee waivers, with an estimated average cost per student of £7,881 after allowing for institutional support.

Institutions that plan to charge more than £6,000 must get the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to approve their agreements for widening access.

As a result, those universities are set to increase their spending on access measures to £602 million a year by 2015-16, up from £407 million in 2011-12.

Access measures cover a broad range of activities including outreach activities to raise aspirations and attainment, financial support such as fee waivers, bursaries and scholarships, and measures to improve retention. Outreach includes activities such as summer schools, mentoring, and advice and guidance for pupils.

Sir Graeme Davies, Director of Fair Access, said: “These agreements represent a considerable commitment by universities and colleges to improving access for students who are under-represented in higher education and where appropriate, improving retention and student success.”

OFFA says that through negotiations with 52 universities and colleges, whose plans did not initially meet its requirements, it significantly stretched targets and secured commitments to another £21 million in access measures.

The government has defended the tripling of the maximum allowed tuition fee, which many fear will act as a deterrent to young people seeking university places, on the grounds that it will be balanced not just by a student loan scheme but also by increased measures to improve support and access for disadvantaged young people.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said the government was determined that no one with the ambition and ability, whatever their background, should face barriers to accessing higher education.

“Progress over the past few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate. Only around 40 pupils out of the 80,000 on free school meals currently make it to Oxbridge [Oxford and Cambridge].

“The government therefore tasked OFFA with setting more demanding tests than in previous years. We are satisfied that universities and colleges are showing their determination to improve.”

He said the government would be monitoring performance on fair access closely every year to ensure tangible progress in opening the doors of universities to the most disadvantaged. Universities face fines, or losing the right to charge a more than £6,000 tuition fee, if they fail to meet agreed targets for recruiting and retaining poorer students.

However Sally Hunt, General Secretary of Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), accused OFFA of “rubber-stamping” higher fees that would entrench England’s position as the world’s most expensive place to study a public degree.

And Liam Burns, the new President of the National Union of Students, accused Cable of failing to keep a lid on the number of universities charging the highest possible fee. The Business Secretary had previously said fees of more than £6,000 would be levied only in exceptional circumstances.

“This solemn promise has quite clearly now been left in tatters,” Burns said.

But Universities UK said the negotiations over access agreements had been a “tough and thorough process” in which universities were “pushed” by OFFA.

Professor Sir Steve Smith, President of Universities UK, said: “It is clear that universities will be committing a considerable percentage of fee income on measures to support poorer students. This is vitally important to ensure that no student is put off from applying to university due to concerns about money.”

He said the agreements do not represent all of universities’ expenditure on access measures. More would be spent from other sources on financial support, outreach and retention.

As a result of the agreements, spending on access to address under-representation in higher education institutions will increase as a proportion of income above the basic fee from 22.6% in 2011 to 26.7% in 2015, with the most marked rise falling among institutions with a low proportion of under-represented students, from 25% to 31.1%. Among élite Russell Group universities it will rise from 26.3% to 32.3%.

Estimated overall access spending by universities and colleges via access agreements and government contributions to the National Scholarship Programme will rise from £407.3 million in 2011 to £737.9 million in 2015.

Spending on bursaries and scholarships (including accommodation discounts) will fall from £351.6 million to £300.3 million, but £220.5 million will be spent on fee waivers, £81.7 million on retention, and outreach spending will double from £55.7 million to £106 million, OFFA said.

But Dr Wendy Platt, Director General of the Russell Group, warned that the emphasis in access agreements on outcome targets could disincentivise universities from continuing activities in deprived areas which target the potential students who are hardest to reach.

* Welsh universities will charge an average of £8,800 in tuition fees from 2012 it was announced on Tuesday. The institutions are allowed to charge between £4,000 and £9,000. While the fee charged for a course will be the same for full-time undergraduate students from any UK or EU country, students ordinarily resident in Wales (and EU students in Wales) will receive from the Welsh Government a non-repayable fee grant for the cost of their fee above £3,465, no matter where in the UK they study.

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