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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 11:33 GMT
Six Forum: University Fees
Six Forum: University fees
Paul Cottrell from the Association of University Teachers answered your questions in a LIVE forum.

  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here to read the transcript

    Students will have to pay annual tuition fees of up to 3,000 a year under plans confirmed by the government.

    Education Secretary Charles Clarke has told the Commons that universities will be free to increase tuition fees, currently pegged at 1,100 a year.

    For the first time different universities will be able to charge different fees up to a cap of 3,000.

    The government has already admitted students who go to university under the new arrangements could leave with debts of between 18,000 and 21,000.

    However, students will no longer have to pay university fees up-front, as they do now.

    Your questions were answered by Paul Cottrell from the Association of University Teachers in a forum for the BBC Six O'clock News, presented by Manisha Tank. .


    Manisha Tank:

    Hello and welcome to the Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank. The Government is concerned that university students are to see a dramatic rise in tuition fees. The plan is designed to make UK universities more competitive, standing up to likes of the American Ivy League.

    Universities will be able to charge up to 3,000 a year for an undergraduate degree - that's three times the current maximum fee. Students who go to university under the new arrangements could leave with debts of between 18,000 and 21,000. But the payments will no longer be up-front, as they are now, instead students will be expected to pay off their debts after graduation.

    So how will this affect the students themselves and what's behind the universities' need for extra cash? Joining me to answer your questions is Paul Cottrell from the Association of University Teachers. Paul, it's good to see you. We've had masses of e-mails and text messages on this subject and hardly surprising.

    We'll start with an e-mail from Marc Wells, Liverpool: Who will decide how much Universities charge for the courses? When is it likely to take effect?

    Paul Cottrell:

    It will take effect from September 2006 - that's when the new tuition fee system will come into place. From that time universities will be able to charge tuition fees of between zero pounds and 3,000. At the moment the tuition fee for all students, all courses is set at a flat rate of 1,100. So it will be a considerable increase.

    As for who will decide on the level of the fees, that will essentially be the universities themselves. They will have to make decisions about what sort of level of fee they feel they can charge and attract the students that they want to attract.

    Manisha Tank:

    Simon Wood, London: Currently I attend Imperial College London. I would like to know whether this increase in fees will affect people already attending university?

    Paul Cottrell:

    No it won't. It won't affect students who are already in courses. It will start with students beginning courses in September 2006. So he doesn't have anything to worry about at the moment.

    Manisha Tank:

    June Hartland, Ascot: How will the universities fund the courses if fees are not to be paid until the graduate has graduated?

    Paul Cottrell:

    Well that's a very good question and we really don't know the detail of the answer to that yet from the Government. Obviously at the moment, because students pay their fees at the beginning of the course and they pay them each year, that income comes straight to the universities. So clearly if the Government is going to get rid of up-front payment of fees and students are only going to start paying money back when they start to work, there is a question about how that will affect the funding of the universities themselves if they will not be getting that money straightaway.

    But I have to say that the Government today has also announced - and this was extremely welcome - additional funding for universities and that will help tremendously in filling the gap that universities will experience when they no longer get their fees up-front.

    Manisha Tank:

    P Bader, UK has written wondering about the correlation between the graduate fees and the higher earners, wondering who this is going to affect?

    Paul Cottrell:

    This is the big question - who will this affect most? The Government of course is extremely concerned to attract more poorer students into universities. We have a really big problem in this country in encouraging students from poorer backgrounds to aspire to a university education.

    Although student numbers have trebled over the last 30 years, if you look at the proportion of students from a working-class background who enter higher education, it's hardly changed at all. So the additional places have really been taken up by better off students from better off backgrounds. So the Government is determined to get more poorer students in. The question is, how that ambition of the Government, fits with the decision to increase the level of tuition fees and I don't think we've really had a satisfactory answer to that yet from Ministers.

    So I think the people it will affect are likely to be the poorer students. I'm still very concerned that the increase in tuition fees will act as a deterrent to many of those students going into higher education. But I think just from the reaction we've already had, it's clear that a lot of students and parents are very worried about that as well.

    Manisha Tank:

    Now we are getting from the Government that they want to attack the idea of being more competitive, particularly with the American Ivy League schools which have huge funds when it comes to research and some of this is the whole idea behind a new fee structure.

    Tony Dixon, Northampton: Do you see this as the best way to improve levels of education in the UK and solve the skills shortage that UK businesses face today?

    Paul Cottrell:

    Well no, I don't think it will. The Government wants to both broaden the range of students who enter higher education, they also want to increase the sheer numbers. They have a target of 50% of the 18 - 30 year-old age range having some experience of higher education by the end of the current decade, which is a very ambitious target. At the moment about 40 - 43% of young people go into higher education. They want a minimum of 50%, which as I say is a considerable ambition.

    Now if we produce more graduates that undoubtedly would be welcomed by business. It will improve the skills that we have in our economy. We will have a better educated workforce generally and a better educated citizenry and that must be a good thing. But again I go back to the point I made earlier - will the increase in tuition fees encourage more people to go into higher education - it doesn't sound logical does it and that is the real concern.

    So I think the Government is right in its ambitions. It's right about the value of higher education and its right about the need to get more people into higher education. But I do worry whether they've gone about it in the right way by introducing, as it were, a free market for tuition fees and taking the lid off the current restricted level of tuition fees.

    Manisha Tank:

    Let's go back to the international comparison for a moment. We've just had an e-mail in from Rob at the University in Brighton - 3,000 a year, big deal, he says. I'm a Canadian student studying in the UK. I currently pay 6,900 a year. UK students don't realise how luck they are.

    Paul Cottrell:

    Well, we have to think about where we start from. In the United Kingdom, for many years, we had free access to higher education and that was deeply ingrained into our culture.

    When I went to university, I had a very good grant, I didn't pay any tuition fees and there was no financial disincentive for me to enter higher education. Now we're moving to a completely different approach where we're saying students must contribute and clearly it has to be introduced very gradually. I think we've already changed the culture to some extent, but I wonder whether we've changed it in the right way.

    There is now a perception - a very widespread perception - that going to university is expensive, even though many poor students don't pay the fee at the moment because they're means-tested and it's decided that they can be let off paying the fees because they've found the income is very low. But that doesn't affect the perception that people have of going into higher education.

    I think the news today will cause a lot of concern and indeed panic amongst students and potential future students and their parents because this idea that it's very expensive to go into higher education in this country will be increased and the fears will be increased.

    So we can't suddenly change our culture from the UK one with a history we've had with our approach to state education - which is basically is that it should be free - the an American one where they've had years and years of accepting the idea that people will pay the bill - work their way through the college, they'll drop in an out of college as they go through their career. However, it isn't as simple as that. We need to be very careful - and it may be that the Government's already gone too far, too quickly and will already have caused a resistance to the idea of going into higher education amongst precisely those young people that we want to get into higher education.

    Manisha Tank:

    Value for money is another issue. Lisa Pope studying at university has sent us a text message. I feel I don't receive value for money for my fees. If fees go up, so should teaching standards.

    Better customer service eh!

    Paul Cottrell:

    Absolutely. I would agree wholeheartedly with that. This again is a very prominent theme in the White Paper today from the Government. Charles Clarke when he introduced the White Paper in the Commons this afternoon, emphasised very much the need to improve teaching of standards in universities and we would strongly support that. In the Association of University Teachers who represent academics, we would like to see more resources put into training to improving teaching wherever we can.

    So I think the answer to the e-mailer is that we are on the case in universities. We are making improvements and if the funding is there, I'm sure those improvements will continue. Meanwhile, I think if students are not satisfied with the teaching they get, they should speak up, they should bring that to the attention of the university authorities. I would hope that our members of staff who teach the students will react to that positively and will accept positive criticism and will try and respond to students' needs - that's what they're there for and we must do that, regardless of whether students pay fees or not.

    Manisha Tank:

    Paul, you mentioned means-testing a little bit earlier. Clem, England: If the debt is to be paid off after the student graduates and gets a well paid job, why does it matter what the student's parents' income is?

    Paul Cottrell:

    Well the student's parents' income matters in this new system for a number of reasons. First of all whether or not the student is entitled to any reduction in the tuition fee and what sort of help they will get with the funding of their higher education will depend to some extent, as it does now, on parental income. I think most people would accept, and certainly the Government does, that it is important that students have to pay that there is some fairness built into the system so that the more well-off students will pay more than the poorer students - that is an important principle. Again, whether the new system will achieve that or not is not clear yet, so parental income matters in respect of that.

    It also will matter in respect of another change which the Government have announced today and that is that they are going to restore an element of the old maintenance grant. That's to say the money that students are given to help them live and survive whilst they're studying, apart from the tuition fee and that will depend on parental income, whether students get that grant. That will come in September 2004 and the Government has set it at a limit of 1,000 per year and only for the very poorer students. So the only students that will get that 1,000 are those whose parents are earning 10,000 or less - so we talking really about the very poor students.

    Manisha Tank:

    Finally, Paul, we've got the results of our on-line poll that we've been running - our News Online viewers have been voting and telling us how you feel - 80% of you are saying that higher fees would put you off going to university. In a sentence, Paul, what do you make of that?

    Paul Cottrell:

    That confirms my worst fears.

    Manisha Tank:

    Well a bit of a disappointment then for you certainly and many students also disappointed at this time. That's it for now. You've been watching the Six Forum, thank you for your masses of e-mails and text messages - keep them coming.

  • See also:

    22 Jan 03 | HE overview
    20 Jan 03 | Education
    19 Jan 03 | Politics
    22 Jan 03 | Education
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