Russell Group’s ‘nightmare scenario’ will leave students with mortgage-style debt –warns NUS

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Aldwych Group student leaders at a lobby of the Russell Group headquarters in London on May 10
Aldwych Group student leaders at a lobby of the Russell Group headquarters in London on May 10

The University and College Union (UCU) on Monday warned that lifting the cap on tuition fees would be ‘the most regressive piece of education policy since the war’.

Responding to calls from the Russell Group of universities for the cap on fees to be lifted and fees trebled, the UCU union said that allowing institutions to set their own fees risked pricing a generation out of higher education.

Students at some of Britain’s top universities have slammed proposals put forward by their institutions to lift the current cap on tuition fees and charge a commercial interest rate on repayments.

The Russell Group, which represents the top twenty research-intensive universities, has called for a rising of student fees and the charging of commercial interest rates on repayments as part of its submission to the Browne Review into higher education funding.

The publication of the Russell Group’s submission comes shortly after they gave in to demands from the Aldwych Group, the Students’ Unions of the Russell Group, to release their submission, having previously refused to release it.

Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, Chair of the Aldwych Group and LSE Students’ Union Education and Welfare Officer said: ‘I am appalled to hear that the Russell Group has advised the Browne Review to raise tuition fees to a level high enough to create a true market in the sector. The Russell Group has failed completely to put forward any case which suggests that a rise in fees would benefit access to or the quality of education. In fact, the Russell Group’s suggestions jeopardise fair access to higher education.

‘It is utterly unjustifiable for an increase in fees to be used to offset state funding cuts. There is already an unfair and disproportionate contribution from students, many of whom graduate with upwards of £25,000 worth of debt.

‘For the Russell Group to ask for the application of real interest rates to repayments is short-sighted and incredibly regressive. The Browne Review needs to ensure that there is a progressive restructuring of the system that is both beneficial for universities and students’.

The National Union of Students (NUS) warned that newly published proposals from the Russell Group to remove the cap on student tuition fees would lead to students leaving university with debts of more than £40,000. NUS warned the hugely unpopular move would be political suicide for the Government.

Aaron Porter, NUS President-elect said: ‘The removal of the cap on fees would fully expose students and their families to the huge risks and potential calamities of the market, abandoning them to sink or swim.

‘This call shows no regard for the current economic climate students face, nor does it acknowledge that institutions have failed to improve the quality of what they offer despite fees trebling in 2006.

‘The Russell Group’s proposals would lead to many students leaving university with mortgage-style debts of more than £40,000 when times are already very tough for graduates and young people.

‘This would be a nightmare scenario and Lord Browne should rule it out.

‘It is disappointing and short-sighted for the Russell Group to pretend that the only way to pay for universities’ funding shortcomings is to make students pick up the bill and pay more for less.

‘This would be hugely unpopular with the public, who are overwhelmingly opposed to higher fees, and political suicide for the Government.’

The UCU, who will give oral evidence to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance this Thursday, said that its plans for a Business Education Tax (BET) are the first coherent attempts at making business rather than students pay for the numerous benefits it gets from UK higher education and would allow the UK to abolish tuition fees altogether.

The UCU warned that inequality of access to higher education is already threatening the country’s success.

Research shows that just 13 per cent of fifteen-year-olds in receipt of free school meals go to university compared to the average of 33 per cent.

Educational under-achievement is estimated to cost £18bn a year according to the Princes Trust.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: ‘Raising tuition fees would be the most regressive piece of education policy since the war and put university out of reach for the majority.

‘We desperately need to move away from the idea that the current review of student funding is merely a question of how much student fees go up by.

‘It is time for business rather than students and their families to make a fair contribution.

‘Our proposals to increase corporation tax to fund our universities would still leave it at a lower rate than when the Conservative Party was last in power.’

Students should pay higher fees to go to university in England, says the Russell Group of leading universities.

The group’s submission to Lord Browne’s funding review sets out how the £3,225-a-year fee could be raised to £9,000 without extra cost to taxpayers.

The Russell Group statement claims: ‘An increase in graduate contributions is the fairest and only viable option for addressing the funding shortfall.

The secretary of state responsible for universities in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is Vince Cable, who has signed a pledge promising that he will vote against any attempt to raise fees in this parliament.

The Russell Group wants to create a ‘more differentiated market in higher education’, with a range of different charges for different courses – and for students to repay loans at a higher interest rate.

This combination of higher fees and reduced subsidies would mean that fees could be raised to £9,000 per year, without extra cost to the Treasury, says the group’s report.

The cross-party Browne review, set to report later this year, is considering how universities in England should be funded.

It argues that the fairest and most effective system is to charge the students whose job prospects will have improved by getting a degree.

The Russell Group claims other alternative sources of funding, such as contributions from business, endowments or philanthropists, will not be sufficient for meeting the financial pressures.

The group warned that its universities will face a £1.1bn funding gap by 2012-13.

The Russell Group submission also recognises the political tensions around tuition fees.

The Liberal Democrats campaigned strongly against tuition fees, with party leader Clegg and other MPs pledging to vote against any rise in fees during the next parliament.

Clegg had promised student voters: ‘Use your vote to block unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all.’

Russell Group director general, Wendy Piatt said: ‘We recognise the challenges facing the new coalition government but it must not shy away from addressing this urgent problem.’

The Group makes the false claim that ‘evidence shows that fees have not deterred young people from applying to university; participation in higher education from all socio-economic groups has actually increased since the introduction of variable fees in 2006.’

It adds: ‘The principle that our universities remain “free at the point of entry” – that variable fees are not repaid until graduates are earning – is critical.

‘Increased graduate contributions will provide additional resources for innovative access initiatives and bursaries while ensuring no students have to pay up-front.

It further claims: ‘The costs of student support can be made more affordable to the taxpayer by removing over-generous and regressive subsidies to student loans, whilst retaining support for those who need it most.

‘The submission also shows that, in a tight fiscal environment with limits on public borrowing, there are a number of viable options to secure investment from the private sector to support graduate contributions.’

Commenting on the group’s submission Director General Piatt said: ‘There is an urgent need to secure additional investment in our universities if they are to remain the world-leading institutions that they are today, and to sustain their vital contribution to this country’s economic success and prosperity.

‘All of the beneficiaries of higher education need to share in meeting this challenge, and while every source of income needs to be explored, this submission shows that an increase in graduate contributions is the fairest and only viable option for addressing the funding shortfall.’