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Is another tuition fee hike on the horizon? May 11, 2015

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Originally posted on Progress website:

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2015/05/11/is-another-tuition-fee-hike-on-the-horizon/

Is another tuition fee hike on the horizon?

In 2010, the first big flashpoint for the coalition government was the very public and very brutal, at least for the Liberal Democrats, clash over whether to increase tuition fees. The independent Browne review suggested no fee cap whatsoever. The Liberal Democrat manifesto had promised their abolition, the National Union of Students campaign pledge signed by all Liberal Democrat candidates opted for a freeze on fees and the Tories had not really said anything at all. Eventually the coalition opted for a fee cap of £9,000 a year, the Liberal Democrats broke their promise and the rest, as they say, is history, a bit like most of the Liberal Democrats members of parliament who broke the pledge.

But as soon as the vote to increase fees squeezed through parliament, passed by 21 votes, it became clear that issues of sustainability were coming to the fore. The resource accounting and budgeting charge for the new fee regime continued to rise steadily, and well beyond projections from BIS. By the end of the parliament, the latest figures suggested that for every £1 loaned to a student, 48p would never be paid back. Figures from the public accounts committee suggest that by 2042, the tuition fee black hole could be as big as £90bn, a system which critics described as costing students and the taxpayer more money than the previous regime, while part-time enrolments fell by 40 per cent during the last five years and universities are, privately at least, very concerned about the first generation of £9k students and their willingness to stump up yet more fees for postgraduate courses.

Labour’s policy on tuition fees in the last parliament was always unclear. In their respective leadership campaigns, both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls suggested they preferred a graduate tax. During the fees debate in parliament the Labour position was simply that it opposed what the coalition was proposing and then after months and months of uncertainty and internal wrangling over the feasibility of a graduate tax, the manifesto finally opted for a reduction to £6,000. In opposition, Labour should have had an easy time criticising the coalition on tuition fees, but without a clear and compelling alternative it always felt like they did not exploit that advantage. Liam Byrne was impressive as the shadow minister for higher and further education. He engaged thoughtfully with the sector and seemed prepared to think about the wider challenges for universities beyond the headlines generated by tuition fees. When the Times Higher Education magazine polled academics just before the 2015 election, nearly 46 per cent cited they would back the Labour party. Byrne’s robust and evidence based approach will have been a large contributor to that. However, it was not clear that the thoughtfulness demonstrated by the shadow minister made its way into the Labour manifesto on higher education.

So against this backdrop, and with a strong body of opinion that higher education funding is already unsustainable and wider questions about regulation of the university system there will be some pressure to look at the question of tuition fees once again. Speaking at a post-election briefing hosted by Pearson and the Financial Times this morning, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and formerly head of the Number 10 policy unit in the Blair years, suggested that a further increase in the fee cap would be likely this parliament. He went on to say, that it appeared the government really only listens to the Russell Group of universities and a number of their vice-chancellors have already gone on record as saying that the cap should increase further.

Whatever the new government might be thinking, Labour needs to be more thoughtful than simply arguing against whatever might be proposed. Labour’s approach needs to consider the interplay between schools, further and higher education policy, and the contribution that employers can make toward both funding and appropriately contributing to curriculum and assessment. There needs to be a credible position on funding, but that should not just focus solely on full time undergraduates. There is a crisis in part-time funding, and the postgraduate system is also under pressure and shows signs of being woefully underrepresented by those from non-traditional and working-class backgrounds, these all need to be taken into account.

The Labour party has much to be proud of for the way it oversaw a significant rise in students from the poorest background going to university and the development of a sustainable footing for British universities to compete with the best of the world during their time in government. But with new pressures ahead to find a sustainable funding model, the same level of thought needs to be given to universities once again.

24 Nov – Times Higher Education – Listen to the heart November 28, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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Times Higher Education, 24 November 2011

Listen to the heart

Aaron Porter says that in a high-fees world, the sector must do more to involve an increasingly diverse student body in decision-making

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418207&c=1

Listen to the heart

Credit: Elly Walton

Today, it seems, there is barely a consultation paper or university strategy that does not refer to the importance of “student engagement”. But for all the talk, how effectively does the academy engage with students? Has it merely become adept at paying lip service to the idea?

It is often observed that since the introduction of tuition fees, students increasingly have asked what they will get for their money. The Labour government’s response was to introduce numerous initiatives for student engagement, including student juries, a national forum and even a minister for students. The usefulness of each, however, was questionable – and all were axed by the coalition when it came to power.

The emphasis on student engagement has grown for other reasons, too. One imperative has been the move from an elite to a mass higher education system and the consequent need for universities to involve students other than full-time, 18-21-year-old undergraduates. This has led to an important shift in activity by the National Union of Students.

I know from my time as NUS president that its emphasis on student engagement – built on a sound evidence base – has played a considerable role in ensuring a credible and more mature student contribution to national debate. It has also supported students’ unions to do much the same at the institutional level.

When universities are asked how they engage with students, they are quick to point to committees with student representation, and to students’ unions that have been consulted in their decision-making.

But whether these structures genuinely reach beyond traditional full-time students is questionable. And for all the consultation that takes place, do students really have a greater influence than they did decades ago?

I am not convinced. There has undoubtedly been progress, but it has been too slow and too constrained. Far too many universities are still content to have a handful of students on their committees and a staff-student liaison meeting once a month.

Relying on committees does not cut the mustard. Often the students who attend these meetings have the time to do so because they do not need part-time jobs and don’t have caring responsibilities. How are part-time students or distance learners being involved? The overwhelming majority of student representatives are still drawn from a narrow pool.

Nationally, the same accusations can be made. The political parties and the higher education sector waxed lyrical about the importance of student engagement when the groundwork was being laid to increase tuition fees. But there was more than a whiff of double standards when formal student representation was left off the terms of reference for the Browne Review.

And while sector bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK funding councils have made huge strides in recent years – many adding student members to their boards – the documents and reports they produce remain impenetrable to those who are not higher education policy experts.

Will the changes being introduced next autumn really lead to a more “student-focused” higher education system? The answer here is perhaps the most dispiriting. I do not believe for one second that the title of the higher education White Paper means what it says – unless you think that being at the “heart of the system” means giving students a bit more information (not provided by the government, of course, but left to others) while demanding a hugely increased financial contribution from them.

Universities must do more to open up their books and to involve students in decision-making and strategic planning. It is great to see that the University of Exeter has created a budget scrutiny committee jointly chaired by the university’s registrar and its Students’ Guild president. This committee will oversee where Exeter’s additional tuition-fee money will be spent. It actually grants real decision-making power to students, rather than giving them leave to offer views that may or may not be taken on board.

After all, the only way we can make the reformed system work – and truly place students at the heart of the system – is if universities and students’ unions work together. The responsibility lies at the door of both organisations to ensure that students’ diverse voices are heard. Excuses to ignore them are wearing thin.

Open letter to Simon Hughes following his appointment as the Government’s ‘access advocate’ January 4, 2011

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An open letter to Simon Hughes on University Access.

5th January 2010

Dear Simon,

Congratulations on your appointment to the role of “Advocate for Access to Education”. Given the serious access problem we have in many of our elite Universities and the proposals to treble tuition fees by the Coalition it will be a challenging role – especially if it is to go beyond the kind of “window dressing” that the role has already been accused of. NUS has long called for there to be a more serious debate and attention paid to access into continued education, particularly with better information, advice and guidance given to prospective students. Alongside our member students’ unions we are fully committed to improving and widening university access and are ready and willing to assist in your efforts to ensure that university is opened up to anyone with the talent to achieve. Our 16-18 members in FE Colleges are keen to work with you on your research into the barriers to access they face.

To begin with, we have six recommendations:

First, we would recommend that the Government urgently clarifies its “National Scholarship Scheme”. On the weekend before the fees vote, the Government was claiming that pupils on free school meals would get a free first year at University. Now the Government has dropped that commitment- arguing instead that the scheme should consist of different packages, bid for by universities. Whilst we appreciate that the free school meals measure is only a narrow pool, it was precisely this kind of “postcode lottery” on student financial assistance that your manifesto commitment on bursaries was designed to scrap- so to avoid misleading students, getting the Government to come clean on its “free first year” offer would be a good start, and being clear about which students are now eligible for this support is imperative.

Second, you could hold the Government to its promise on the fee cap. You will know that ministers have repeatedly claimed that the higher limit would only apply in “exceptional” circumstances– but we are finding it hard to get the Government to explain how it will ensure that £9k rather than £6k fees will be the “exception”. Your efforts here could mean ensuring the Government doesn’t break another promise- this time one made repeatedly on the floor of the house.

Third, you could insist that universities do much more to promote access. At present universities are only routinely judged on applications from the poorest; but it is acceptances and completions (as well as achievement) that matter more. Insisting that the monitoring of access achievements gets tougher, and that the HE sector gets its act together on measures such as Post Qualifications Admissions (where students apply once they have their results) and Contextual Admissions (where applicants are judged on academic potential), could make a massive difference.

Fourth, you could insist that the Government reinstates AimHigher. Up until now the debate on access has focussed heavily on 17 and 18 year olds, but research in this area suggests intervention earlier in school is crucial. This is exactly what the AimHigher programme ensured, by funding to ensure meaningful links were built up between universities and schools. The programme has made a massive difference to aspiration to apply to university across the country and the decision to scrap it will only harm our shared cause to improve access, particularly at a time when the Coalition have trebled tuition fees.

Fifth, you would do well to suggest that the Government listens and responds to voices in the Muslim community making clear how damaging the changes to loan interest rates will be to access for this group. FOSIS (the Federation of Islamic Student Societies) have repeatedly made clear why the changes will be a problem but so far have had no contact from ministers or officials.

But sixth and most importantly, you could demand that the EMA is reinstated. Everyone agrees that the biggest factor in determining university access is achievement at Level 3- or A Level. So for Gove to axe it (having promised to keep it) on the most threadbare of evidence is astonishing, and will do more to harm university access than your role could ever fix. Officially, you only have the power to recommend how a £50m replacement for a £450m scheme is spent. Unofficially, you could make abundantly clear just how devastating for the poorest families the removal of the EMA will be to retention and achievement- and get it reinstated before it’s too late.

I fear that measures the Government have taken so far in office have been utterly counter-productive for social mobility, I hope that your appointment will start to see this reversed, and look forward to hearing back from you in relation to the role NUS can play to help you achieve this, and the six recommendations I have made above as an important start point.

Best wishes,

Aaron Porter
National President

The Observer: “Smart suit, shiny shoes … meet the new NUS president leading the battle against fees” (20th June 2010) January 1, 2011

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Smart suit, shiny shoes … meet the new NUS president leading the battle against fees

published in The Observer on 20th June 2010:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jun/20/nus-president-battle-fees-aaron-porter

As the union turns to persuasion not placards, Aaron Porter is finding unlikely support

  • Anushka Asthana, policy editor
  • The Observer, Sunday 20 June 2010
  • Scott Barbour

    Students take part in a demonstration to protest over higher tuition fees in London, England. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

    Aaron Porter, 25, has just moved back in with his parents in Norbury, south London, after graduating in English literature from the University of Leicester. Not quite the profile you might expect of a man who, as the new president of the National Union of Students, is about to lead one of the fiercest political battles in a generation.

    Porter has only months in this new age of austerity to convince Lord Browne, who is carrying out a major review into university financing, that the government should not raise the cap on student fees.

    If he fails, hundreds of thousands of young people he represents now – and millions in the future – will face an increasingly US-style market in higher education. That could mean starting their working lives with debts of £50,000 or more. “I’ve got a hell of a lot on my plate,” he admits.

    The campaigning begins in earnest tomorrow, when thousands of students and lecturers team up for 70 events across the country, hoping that higher education will be spared the worst of the cuts to be unveiled in Tuesday’s emergency budget.

    Porter might be living with his parents – a policeman who grew up in London and a teacher from Trinidad – but by day his job is as high-powered as they come. Dressed in a smart dark suit, striped shirt, red tie and shiny black shoes, he is due to go from this interview with the Observer to a one-on-one meeting with Lord Browne. From there it is on to an advisory forum with top figures in the field including Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, which represents all vice-chancellors.

    Porter officially becomes NUS president on 1 July, but he has already met Vince Cable, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, and tomorrow he will sit down with David Willetts, the universities minister. In between the occasional dinner cooked by his mother, he is working 10 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. “The stakes are so high – it is imperative I get my point across,” he says.

    Success, says Porter, is “ensuring that a market in fees does not emerge”. And failure? “The disaster would be a real market in fees coupled with cuts from the government… it will devastate some people’s lives.” He is fighting hard to stop universities getting their way and lifting the £3,225-a-year cap on fees (due to rise to £3,290 this year).

    Porter is already worried about predictions that this summer 150,000 pupils who have the ability to go to university will never make it. Tackling that issue is what he sees as his key role: “It is vital – I have to stand up to defend what could be a lost generation of young people. And also ensure that education can continue to be based on ability, and not ability to pay. That is the real battle we are up against.”

    It is a battle for which the NUS has created a new strategy. One of the youngest unions in the country has given up shouting from the sidelines and decided instead to step into the fray.

    “We’ve moved from irrelevance to the centre of the debate,” he says. “By ensuring we have evidence-based policy and engaging in the debate that is happening, not in some imaginary one.” Porter remembers 2004, when he was 19 and the decision was being taken to increase fees from their original level of £1,000 a year. At that time the NUS stuck to a position opposing all tuition fees, calling instead for the reinstatement of grants.

    But, he argues, the argument had already been lost and the time had come to move on. “There came a point when the debate was no longer ‘should there be fees or not?’, but ‘how do we fund higher education?’ Rather than sitting at the table, we were standing outside shouting. We weren’t taken seriously: we were left out in the cold.”

    It was his predecessor, Wes Streeting, who fought to change the NUS from the inside, dropping its opposition to contributions from students. Instead, the organisation came up with an alternative – a graduate tax, which would see students face a slightly increased rate of income tax over their careers. It was a fight to get the union to accept it and now Porter is determined to maintain the policy. “There are some that think we should stick to the principled position of free education. But if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken.”

    Porter is a member of the Labour party but decided to run for the role of president as an independent, believing that would be the best way to serve students. Student support for Labour has ebbed away in recent years. A poll carried out before the general election suggested 50% of students were planning to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

    Porter believes Nick Clegg’s party has placed itself in a difficult position. After all, it promised in its manifesto to phase out fees – a hugely popular move. Yet in the coalition agreement the party agreed to await the outcome of Browne’s review. Should it be unpalatable to the party, Clegg and his negotiating team agreed that Lib Dem MPs would abstain, allowing the review’s conclusions to be implemented if supported by the Conservatives and Labour. Porter knows that the party – and especially Cable – is under from pressure from vice-chancellors who insist fees must go up if they are to compete successfully with foreign competitors. The universities believes fees should be seen as an additional income on top of government funding – not an alternative.

    “There are tens of thousands of students who voted for the Liberal Democrats on a pledge that they would not raise fees,” says Porter. “It they do not stick to that position they will not only lose the trust of students but the general public. I think it would be political suicide for the Lib Dems to go into coalition with the Conservatives on this issue.”

    He goes further: “I don’t believe the Lib Dems can look the electorate in the eye if they go back on their word. We would be happy to work with them on an alternative way of funding higher education.” As for the Conservatives, he talks of a “constructive” relationship with Willetts in opposition. “He surprised us, a Tory minister, and I hope we surprised him as a national union.”

    Indeed, the politician has been full of praise for the NUS. When in opposition Willetts said the transformation of the union and its new way of fighting was “the most powerful single way of making sure that politicians listen”. That was in October 2009, at an NUS conference. It was there that Willetts claimed the case for raising the cap had not been won by universities. “How would I vote today? I think I would say today, if the vote arose, that the case has not been made,” he said. “This is not an argument that I believe the universities have won. They haven’t yet properly accounted for the first £3,000 they had, so I would say not unless, and until, you have shown what is in it for students and their parents.”

    Porter hopes to convince Willetts that vice-chancellors have still not won the argument. “I don’t think universities have made the case sufficiently about how they could improve what students receive,” he says, saying the call for higher fees lacks “legitimacy”.

    Porter believes that failure by the NUS to win this argument will hurt those from the poorest backgrounds in the long run, who are deterred from applying to university. Those that do choose to study at a higher level may have to stay at home missing out on the extracurricular activities such as volunteering and clubs – not to mention learning to live independently, “to cook and wash for themselves”.

    Then there is the post-university impact. Heavy fees could mean different decisions about marriage, he argues, and could create a society in which graduates habitually rent instead of buying homes. “I recognise the pressures on university and college funding but they have had a decade of almost exponential investment and very few of them had the foresight to realise there might be a few years of difficulties.” His argument is that it is not fair to burden students with the cost of that failure.

    Porter perhaps owes his own political drive to his mother, who timed dinner with the six o’clock news when he was growing up. “I remember taking an unhealthy interest in the 1992 election,” he says. “I was seven.”

    Should he fail and fees go up, he says: “I don’t think vice-chancellors are so bloodthirsty that they would not make some grants available. But if you graduate with £50,000 of debt, or £80,000 or £90,000 if you are a medic… I would think twice.” As for the struggle, it will be a bit of the old and a bit of the new, he says: meetings behind closed doors with the likes of Willetts, Cable and Browne – but an old-fashioned national demonstration to remind the country that students still know how to shout.

    WHATEVER HAPPENED TO OTHER NUS PRESIDENTS?

    Jack Straw, 1969-71

    Became president of an increasingly radical NUS in 1969 after campaigning to remove the union’s “no politics” clause. Ten years later he was elected as Labour MP for Blackburn and went on to serve as home and foreign secretaries. Now shadow justice secretary. His son, Will, followed in his footsteps, becoming president of the Oxford University Student Union. 

    Charles Clarke, 1975-77

    Clarke – who had been a prominent Labour MP – lost his seat in the election by 310 votes. He had served as education and home secretaries during Labour’s 13 years in power.

    Sue Slipman, 1977-78

    She was the first woman to be elected president in 1977 after being supported by the Broad Left, a coalition of the Labour party, Plaid Cymru, the Communist party of Great Britain and others. Credited with reforming the way in which single mothers were seen by society as head of the National Council For One-Parent Families in the 1980s and 90s.

    Trevor Phillips, 1978-80

    Became president after leading student union at Imperial College London. Worked in TV before entering politics. Was head of Commission for Racial Equality and leads its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

    David Aaronovitch, 1980-82

    After being thrown out of Oxford, Aaronovitch studied history at Manchester University. While there, in 1975, he was part of a University Challenge team that answered every question with “Che Guevara”, “Marx”, “Trotsky” or “Lenin”. It was a protest about the programme’s bias towards Oxbridge. Now a writer and journalist.

    Lorna Fitzsimons, 1992-94

    Elected to parliament three years later. Became MP for Rochdale in 1997 – and was described as one of Blair’s babes – but lost her seat in 2005. Now chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

    Aaron Porter for NUS President – Manifesto March 28, 2010

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    Link to manifesto: Aaron Porter for NUS President

    A manifesto which will place us at the fore-front for the fight for fairer funding, fighting cuts to education and will ensure that NUS becomes closer to students and Students’ Union.

    – Fighting Cuts to Education

    – Funding Our Future

    – Prioritising Further Education

    – Cutting Edge Communication with students and SUs

    – Student Activities, Volunteering & Sport

    – Accountability and Transparency

    – Delivering for Students’ Unions

    – Project : Participation

    – Uniting Education Unions

    – NUS Events & Training

    – International Students

    – Nations

    – Liberation across the movement

    – Supporting Religious Students