Tuition fees: £9k standard at a third of universities

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption, Protests against the fees rises ended in violence

More than a third of England's universities have had their plans to charge £9,000 for every course officially approved.

Some 58% will be allowed to charge £9,000 for at least some courses in 2012, said the fees watchdog the Office for Fair Access.

But it also revealed that no university had been forced to cut its fees during negotiations.

Ministers said far more money would now be spent on attracting poorer students.

It comes after it was announced that eight out of 10 universities in Wales will charge maximum tuition fees of £9,000 per year for some or all their courses.

Every university wanting to charge more than £6,000 in fees has had to have its proposals to attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds approved by Offa.

Known as access agreements, these include fee-waivers, bursaries and outreach activities like summer schools and targeted trips to primary and secondary schools to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply.

University fee levels are contingent on these being approved by the watchdog.

Director of Fair Access Sir Graeme Davies said the process of negotiating these agreements had been "rigorous and robust".

He added that 52 of the 141 institutions' original plans for widening access and raising fees were not challenging enough and were sent back to be re-worked.

"In some cases we were unhappy with the first draft we received but institutions responded positively," he added.

Offa said universities had improved their targets and promised to spend an extra £21m on access measures overall, but no fee levels were reduced as a result of these negotiations.

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg declared that elite universities would not be given permission by Offa to charge higher fees unless they could prove more students from poorer backgrounds would get in.

Media caption, Director of Fair Access Sir Graeme Davies says that financial support will be targeted to help students from poorer backgrounds

Higher fees

Offa also said that by 2015-16, universities planned to spend about £600m on such widening participation measures. This represents about 26% of their fee income above £6,000 in 2012 and compares to £407m in 2011-12, Offa said.

However, it comes against the backdrop of individual students paying far more for their university education and many fear that those from lower income groups will be put off by the higher fees.

And Offa admitted that it was not yet clear how much of this would actually be spent because of uncertainty over the number and type of students who will apply to university.

Image caption, Universities fees

Many vice-chancellors are already working on the assumption that demand for student places will go down.

David Barrett, Assistant Director of Fair Access, said: "The numbers are difficult because we are talking about the future and we don't exactly how students will react."

Offa added that it believed significantly fewer than half of students would be charged a net fee of £9,000, once fee-waivers and other support were considered.

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

"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 pledged to monitor performance on fair access closely.

'Rubber stamping'

But the National Union of Students president Liam Burns said fee waivers were "being used in a cynical attempt to cover up the mess made when the government trebled the tuition fee cap, instead of properly supporting less-wealthy students".

He added: "Vince Cable had stated that fees over £6,000 would only be levied in exceptional circumstances but his solemn promise has quite clearly now been left in tatters."

Gareth Thomas MP, Labour's Shadow Universities Minister said:"Not one university that increased fees to £9,000 has been told to lower their fees and not one access agreement has been rejected, despite David Cameron and Nick Clegg's grand claims."

General secretary of the UCU lecturers' union Sally Hunt, said: "The rubber-stamping of higher fees will entrench our position as the most expensive place to study a public degree in the world.

"The new system is flawed both economically and morally and it is not right to ask the brightest brains in this country to be guinea pigs for an unfair system that has not been properly thought though."

Professor Les Ebdon, chair of university think-tank Million+ and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said: "The Offa figures reveal that the average fee is likely to be £8,161 once fee waivers are taken into account.

"This is far higher than the £7,500 predicted by ministers and reflects the impact of the coalition government's policy of cutting public investment in university teaching by 80%."

He also pointed out that universities that tended to attract lower income students were offering students help during the course of their studies rather than fee-waivers because they understood how important that was to them.

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