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Fairer funding for all

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For over a decade the funding of British higher education has been the subject of intense debate in Parliament, the media, amongst students and universities and amongst voters.

With the system of fees and funding now under review, this debate is far from over. Members of Parliament elected at the 2010 general election will have to decide whether they accept the review's recommendations and, over the course of the next Parliament, firmly establish the basis on which universities in England are to be funded.

Students and universities need to ensure that they get their voices heard during the review period, otherwise they risk missing the opportunity to ensure that the system is fair to all.

The legislation which introduced the current system of fees was hotly contested, with the Labour Government winning a majority of just five votes for the HE Bill's Third Reading. The enthusiasm of some MPs, Cabinet Ministers and university vice-chancellors for a market in fees was limited by the decision to cap fees for full-time UK and EU students at £3000 per annum. The HE Act permitted this limit to be increased in line with inflation. By 2009/10 the maximum annual fee stood at £3,225 a fee levied by almost all universities in England.

If the 2004 HE Act was meant to resolve the debate of funding higher education, it singularly failed. The introduction of variable fees in English universities became a factor in the 2005 general election with evidence that some MPs in seats with a 'university vote' were elected, in part, as a result of a manifesto promise that tuition fees would be abolished. In the years that have followed, some have proposed an increase in the fee cap to £5,000, £7,000 or more. Others have campaigned for an end to any cap, with universities free to charge whatever fees they choose. The NUS long campaigned for an abolition of fees before more recently proposing that fees should be replaced by a graduate tax.

As well as considering all these possibilities, the Fees Review has also been tasked with trying to square the circle of the cuts to the higher education budget outlined in November's Pre-Budget Report. This is against a backdrop of unprecedented numbers of students entering and applying to universities, with no promise from government that, if you are qualified and want to attend university, there will be a place funded for you.

million+'s contribution to the debate Fair Funding for All exposed the particular inequalities between full-time and part-time students in the current fees regime:

Part-time students are required to pay all fees upfront whilst full-time students do not pay anything until completion of their degree.

Unlike full-time students, part-time students do not have access to any student loans.

Fair Funding for All recommends that university should be free at the point of study for all students and sets out a unified package of student support for all undergraduates. Ending the unfair treatment of part-time students, abolishing upfront fees and offering all students the same support package would leave students £67 million better off and universities £91 million better off each year. The £158 million cost to the Exchequer could be eliminated, for example, with only a 0.5% increase in the rate levied on student loans. These changes could help the development of more flexible options to study and attract more students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply to university.

As well as extending equivalent student support to part-time students, we recommend that the current levels of student support afforded to full-time students, in the form of maintenance grants and loans and fee loans, must be maintained if we are to continue to widen and deepen participation in higher education, especially amongst those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Crucially, we make the case that there should be no uplift in fees until all political parties make clear their future commitment to funding higher education.

However, bridging the current budget gap cannot be the sole responsibility of students or universities. As much as Lord Mandelson would have you believe otherwise, there is a real funding crisis in higher education. This is as much an issue for students as it is for universities: the final figures for students entering university in 2009 confirm the unprecedented demand for higher education in the UK. With the initial deadline for 2010 applications now past, it's clear that this trend is set to continue.

Many of this year's applicants could be left disappointed, with the supply of places not enough to meet demand. A clear commitment is now needed from all political parties; that they will provide the funding so that no qualified applicant is turned away in 2010. Labour has reversed two decades of under-investment but it will not be enough to prevent would-be students ending up on the dole queue if more funding for student places is not found. The pre-election budget provides one last opportunity for them to provide assurances. Students and universities also need to know they will not be the victims of a George Osborne post-election raid on the higher education budget.

It would be a sorry legacy of any government if the lasting impact of the recession was to narrow rather than expand opportunities to study at university.

Pam Tatlow is Chief Executive of the university think-tank million+


The million+ report 'Fair Funding for All' can be downloaded from millionplus.ac.uk

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