The arrival of top-up fees

Submitted by AWL on 31 March, 2005 - 7:56

The market in Higher Education provision made possible by last year’s Higher Education Act, which allowed the introduction of variable top-up fees, is not taking the exact shape most student activists predicted it would, but it is definitely taking shape.

The Government’s Office of Fair Access (Offa), which was created by the HE Bill, has announced that from 2006 it will allow 112 of the 120 Higher Education institutions in England and Wales to charge the full, £3,000 a year top-up fee. Eight have chosen to charge less than the maximum. Only three are fully-fledged universities, while the rest are Higher Education colleges with a high concentration on teacher training courses.

Offa statements have been wild with enthusiasm for the new funding system, claiming that, because virtually all universities will be charging the same fee, it does not introduce a market into Higher Education. At the same time, it insists that higher tuition costs will not have an effect on access, because of the Government’s reintroduction of a limited maintenance grant, and because universities will now be required to plough some of their income from top-up fees into bursaries for the poorest students. A good deal?

What should the left make of these arguments?

To start with, we need to put our opposition to what the Government is doing on a sound factual and political footing. It is true that, once the new set-up is in place, a large number of students will be substantially better off than before. For those from the very poorest families, fee remission combined with the maximum Government grant of £2,700 (£700 more than the Liberal Democrats advocate!) and (for some) bursaries of some thousands will probably mean less debt than now. However, this new, apparently more generous system is both totally inadequate and not all that it seems.

Inadequate because both grants and bursaries will be drastically means-tested, with only those students who combined family income comes to less than £16,000 a year receiving the full whack, and those with a family income of more than £33,000 (not much more than the average) receiving nothing. A student whose parents both work full-time on the National Minimum Wage will not receive the full £2,700 a year — which in turn is less than half of what a student needed to live outside London in 2003/4. This only seems generous in comparison to the dire situation of no grants at all which has existed since 1998. For the majority, debt will increase substantially under top-up fees.

And not all that it seems? No, because, whatever concessions it has made, New Labour has got what it wants — a market-based solution.

The reintroduction of a state-funded grant was offered by the Government as a sweetener during the battles over the HE Bill, allowing left-Blairite MPs nervous at the thought of parliamentary rebellion to convince themselves that the legislation would on balance do more good than harm. What Blair and Co. wanted (and what they got) was the basic principle that universities would at least begin to function as businesses in a market place.

The solution that has been brokered on fees and grants must be not at all displeasing to the Blairites. A large part of student support will now be funded through fees and localised to institutions; in fact, Offa itself stressed that it is mainly in terms of bursaries that a market is beginning to operate. But the fact that bursaries will vary from university to university while fees will not is not evidence that no market exists, but further evidence that the market principle puts profit before human need.

Consequences of top-up fees

A localised, super-means-tested system of student support means another step away from the conception of Higher Education as a public good. It will also penalise those universities with a high percentage of working-class students and those doing the most to expand access, as Paul Mackney of NATFHE has pointed out. What will its other consequences be?

Evidence from abroad suggests that the comparatively generous financially settlement used to facilitate the introduction of top-up fees will not last. In the United States, the country on which New Labour’s plans for Higher Education are fairly blatantly modelled, fees have risen by 107% in real terms since 1980, while support for the three quarters of students who attend public universities has fallen significantly. Higher Education in the USA is thus increasingly viewed not only metaphorically but literally as an investment, in just the same sense that any other investment might be.

The consequences for the social composition of American universities are hardly surprising: a recent study of the 100 top ranked universities showed that only 10% of their students were from families in the bottom half of the income ladder.

It seems obvious that, particularly once the current cap on top-up fees has been swept away, a similar situation will exist in UK universities. Already, we face a situation of public funding for research at a small number of elite institutions taking precedence over both research and teaching at the majority of universities. This has meant an intensification of attacks on lecturers’ pay and conditions, accelerating departmental and course closures and a failure to keep up with rising demand for places at university — last year there was an increase of more than 29,000 in applications to university but only 21,000 new places. So much for expanding the benefits of HE to all!

Fighting back

In the same way that they lulled many Labour MPs back to sleep last year, the introduction of grants and bursaries will make it harder to galvanise and direct student opposition to what new Labour is doing — both because some students see benefits in the new system and, more importantly, because it will provide the Blairite leaders of NUS with a way to avoid outright opposition. (The introduction of Education Maintenance Allowances has played a similar role in Further Education.) Nonetheless, concerted opposition is necessary, both in terms of frustrating the Government’s immediate plans and developing a longer-term political alternative.

Variable fees will come into operation in Autumn 2006. So far universities have faced almost no pressure over the level of their fees. It is vital that activists and student unions at a local level begin to apply pressure, including direct action, occupations etc, to make their university administration think twice about charging the full fee — indeed, to demand that they charge a zero fee. Graduate repayment means that a non-payment campaign is no longer possible, but a fight to force institutions to back down is.

The Government has been able to shape the debate on HE funding because the official student movement, and in the first instance NUS, has completely failed to present a coherent alternative. Despite the fact that its National Conference voted almost two years ago to support a universal system of free education and maintenance support funded by taxing the rich, NUS has remained totally silent on this score — not least under the not very new regime of “revolutionary” Kat Fletcher. We need an NUS leadership that popularises socialist answers to the new Labour’s promotion of the market — and an activist campaign to act when NUS refuses to.

That’s what Education Not for Sale exists to do.

By Daniel Randall, Education Not for Sale network

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