The Government are re-committing themselves (once again) to an increase in the tuition fee cap for two-year degrees. This is a good idea, as it means the student support system will better reflect the true cost of delivering accelerated courses, where there are more teaching weeks each year (and less time to use the campus for other activities during university holidays). That extra choice is good for students and good for institutions, even though not all potential students and not all institutions will be interested.
So I hope the change succeeds. But anyone reading the Government’s press release may be led to think the change is more likely to happen than it really is. This is for two reasons.
First, the press notice makes clear the change will only happen if Parliament votes for a higher fee cap for these courses. It implies the measure could get the support of the Labour Party by noting that some Labour politicians have backed the idea in the past. Given the Official Opposition is opposed to all tuition fees, this could prove to be a little optimistic.
- those were different political times – since then, power has shifted away from the executive (Government) to the legislature (Parliament), which is more able to flex its muscles; and
- the Bill had lots of other contentious measures in it, so discussions about two-year degrees were peripheral.
If Labour MPs won’t even vote for a Brexit deal that has much in common with what they have said they want, why would they vote for a tuition fee settlement that would mean higher fees for some degrees when they are opposed to all fees?
Secondly, the current Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (also known as the Augar review) is widely thought to favour lower tuition fees. So any institution that changes its strategy in relation to today’s (re)announcement on higher fees could find themselves on a hiding to nothing: they could plan on the assumption that tuition fee policies are now fixed (or else that fees are, if anything, trending upwards) when in fact the fee system we have could soon be ripped up (or at least fees could be substantially reduced).
Finally, we remain in the dark about something else important.
Fee caps and loan caps are not inextricably linked. In particular, students at ‘Approved fee cap’ providers can be charged and may borrow up to £9,250 a year. But students at so-called ‘alternative providers’ in the ‘Approved’ category can already be charged any fees but may only borrow a maximum of £6,165 per year. In other words, for many students at alternative providers, there is a substantial gap between their fees and their fee loan.
It is generally expected two-year degrees could be particularly attractive to alternative providers, who often look for innovative delivery models. Yet it is not clear whether their students will be allowed to borrow any more as part of the new announcement or whether today’s announcement drives an even bigger wedge between Approved and Approved fee cap providers by improving the position for the latter but changing nothing for the former.
We have to wait until Monday to find out the full details of what the Government’s announcement means. But, if the fees and loans at Approved fee cap providers were to increase for two-year degrees while nothing changes in the rules for alternative providers, then the relative attractiveness of the latter may decline. Any such change is entirely within the Government’s prerogative, but it would be a little unexpected for an administration that wants to see more diversity in higher education (and comes on top of last week’s announcement that the New College of the Humanities is being sold).
Addendum: Thinking about this some more overnight, it is worth recalling that the original consultation did propose a 20% increase in the loans for students at alternative providers too. If this is still part of the proposal, then they will benefit as well. However, it still leaves around a £4k gap between the amount their students can borrow for two-year degrees and the amount on offer to students on comparable courses elsewhere. So it would remain likely that students on two-year courses at alternative providers would have to top up their course fees substantially through their own resources.