Alexander Smith: Don’t gamble with the nation’s best resource: our universities

IT is not just the two Oxbridge universities that intend to charge the full £9,000 in undergraduate student tuition fees in 2012-2013. Imperial College London will do likewise.

So, too, will Exeter University which has become the first institution outside the Russell Group, which represents the most prestigious seats of learning.

This is another indication that the Government is even struggling to restrict fees to an average of £7,500 in order to avoid unaffordably high costs in loans to students.

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And yet, our Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg feigns outrage, ludicrously threatening sanctions against Oxbridge and other universities, declaring that it is “not up to them” to decide whether they can charge fees above the £6,000 “soft” cap the Government has imposed.

“Universities are too often acting to inadvertently narrow opportunities, rather than widen them,” said the Sheffield Hallam MP in a recent speech.

But it has now become apparent that the coalition Government’s policies on higher education are ill conceived, incoherent and, potentially, unworkable.

Following last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the coalition announced a funding cut of 83 per cent to university teaching budgets.

In the arts, business, education, law and the social sciences, all public funding for teaching will be abolished from 2012 onwards.

Some universities – like the London School of Economics, which has been criticised for accepting a pledge of £1.5m from Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, a former student – will lose all the money that they currently receive in public funding for teaching.

Universities will have to raise this lost income by charging higher tuition fees to their students.

When Parliament voted to increase tuition fees last year, a cap was introduced at £6,000. No university is in a financial position to consider charging less than this amount.

In addition, universities have the option of increasing this fee by an additional £3,000.

To do this, they must satisfy the Government’s regulators that they have proactive strategies in place for improving access to lower socio-economic groups that have not previously benefited from higher education.

It is possible that when the Government conceived these policies, Mr Clegg and others imagined that only a handful of the most selective universities would seek to charge the maximum £9,000 fee.

But this was always an unrealistic expectation for one very simple reason: the £6,000 the Government will allow universities to raise through tuition fees will barely compensate them for the massive and disproportionate funding cuts they have been dealt.

Teaching costs come to almost £7,500 per student across the higher education sector. Any university that agrees to charge no more than £6,000 risks further cutting its budgets by 20 per cent.

Thanks to the Government’s cutbacks in higher education funding, all universities – not just the likes of Oxbridge and Imperial – are now faced with these financial challenges.

It is also important to recognise that these latest cuts come after years of significant funding reductions to university budgets.

The last Labour government cut spending on Universities by almost £1bn – even when the then Chancellor Alistair Darling argued that public spending should never be reduced in the middle of a recession.

There have also been cuts to estate and research budgets that now bite deep into higher education. Many now fear that there just isn’t any more “fat” left to cut.

Mr Clegg often argues that UK universities must become “engines of social mobility” on the grounds that Oxbridge have an unimpressive record of opening access to lower socio-economic applicants.

The Government makes much of statistics from the Sutton Trust, which show that less than two per cent at the 25 most selective universities are pupils who received free school meals while at secondary school.

Meanwhile, almost half of all students at Oxbridge come from the private school sector, even though they account for just seven per cent of high school students.

But the university sector is much bigger than Oxbridge. The bulk of England’s universities – and there are about 100 of them – are located in the regions. Every year, they accept thousands of students from poor and non-traditional backgrounds and support them through their studies.

These universities train tomorrow’s nurses, social workers, teachers and many other professionals – not to mention future business leaders and entrepreneurs.

Many of these institutions have excellent records of helping their students secure graduate employment opportunities that would not have been available to them if they had never gone to university.

Put simply, local and regional universities do the heavy-lifting on social mobility – not Oxbridge. They are already engines of social mobility. In Yorkshire and many other regions of England, they are often engines of economic growth as well.

And this is what makes the Government’s priorities so perverse.

The Deputy PM and his Cabinet colleagues seem unable to imagine what higher education looks like beyond the cloistered comforts of an Oxbridge college.

To many, the coalition Government’s impoverished, market-driven “vision” increasingly resembles a reckless gamble with our nation’s greatest resources: our universities.

Dr Alexander Smith is a sociology lecturer at the University of Huddersfield.