Quick – someone call specsavers, Willetts’ glasses have a case of the tint-de-rose

So – David Willetts has shown us the light – he has shown us that we were all wrong and that tuition fees are the amazing thing to be praised… or in reality he has shown us just another case of a Government minister spouting inaccuracies and making statements that stretch far beyond the realm of mis-leading.

Here is my (very rushed) response to a number of his points:

1.

‘Their monthly repayments as grduates are going to be lower than they are now’

– That is correct, and would be something to welcome – if it weren’t for the fact that they have introduced real interest on loans for anyone earning above £21,000, going up to RPI +3%.

2.

Warwick University’s proposal to the Office for Fair Access (Offa) is to charge £9,000 a year to its students, but for those coming from families earning less than £25,000, fee waivers and bursaries will be available, each worth up to a total of £4,500

– That is just completely wrong. According to Warwick’s website, they state that those ‘whose family income falls under £25,000, receive a package of fee waivers and bursaries worth a total of up to £4,500‘ – Yet another example of government ministers getting their facts wrong. It is also misleading to judge bursaries in comparison to the fee level – bursaries are for maintenance, so if he wants to talk about bursaries, he should be comparing them to the cost of living, not the future tax liability that students incur. The bursary has no effect on the amount of tuition fee being paid and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.

3. Yes London Met has proposed fees starting from under £6,000 – but it also plans to cut the number of courses from 557 to about 160, which in turn is rumoured to reduce the number of students by about 25%. When the talk of higher fees first came about, the government line post-Browne was all about increased number of place, yet now, the latest veiled threat is that universities could have places cut if they all ‘race’ to £9000 – I may be naiive, but it seems that rather than racing, universities have been dragged over the £7500 line by the huge cuts to teaching grants.

4.

First, they save money because we convert grants to loans, where it is only the 30% of the money we don’t get back that adds to public spending.

– Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the Government provide the loans and so in effect are paying all of the tuition fees up front and then re-claiming it back (the process of which won’t start for the new regime until April 2016 at the earliest). I know Willetts seems proud of the fact that they have cut so much money from teaching grants, but the Government also budgeted for the average tuition fee being £7500 – as it stands at the moment, the average fee is in fact currently standing at £8,716.43 (Thanks to THE for that).

5. Willetts is pitching the opening up of HE to ‘a wider range of providers’ as a positive thing – yet there is no sign of the white paper (which was supposed to come in the winter, then in the Spring) outlining what rules these providers will be subject to (if any). Surely, with the open day season fast approaching, surely students and parents deserve to know that quality assurance will also apply in the private sector, especially given the recent investigation into the group owning one of the private institutions granted university status by David Willetts last year.

Given Nick Clegg’s and David Cameron’s focus on access in the past week (see https://andytalksaccess.wordpress.com/ for my comments on that), it is surprising, some might say insulting, that the writer does not even mention “access” or “widening participation” once (and no – I’m not letting “Office for Fair Access” count).
He fails to acknowledge the deterrent effect that this level of debt will have on countless numbers of students, especially when you take into account the abolition of Aimhigher and cuts that sixth form colleges are facing to the budgets they use for university visits and aspiration events. There will be students out there saying that going to university is not worth getting into that much debt for – even though they may well have benefitted from it and had the ability to succeed on a university course.

It is clear that a worrying number of Government ministers just don’t appear to have a clue – they’re obviously too busy to check their facts before they put them out in the public domain.
Willetts talks about students not facing ‘anything close to £9,000 a year‘ yet what he doesn’t mention is that universities are not free to use their National Scholarship Programme funding to benefit the students it thinks needs the most support – no, they have a set number of scholarships which they must give, and they cannot decide to give more to a more targeted group of students. So for example, if Cambridge wanted to give more money to students who were eligible for free school meals than the scholarship provides for (or even to expand it across every year of the degree), then it cannot.

Nothing like a bit of coherent policy…

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