Government slammed over ‘ideological’ tuition fee increases

By Joshua Powling

Students starting at the University of Manchester are likely to pay £9,000 a year from 2012, as it announces plans to charge maximum fees.

The University joins Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Durham and others in raising tuition fees to the full £9,000 following government legislation in December last year. But Sarah Wakefield, General Secretary of the University of Manchester Student Union, warns that the changes could have a catastrophic impact upon students.

She said: “Students haven’t always been the best advocates for themselves, but there is a level of anger that I’ve never seen and an undertone of disquiet about what is going on. All around there is a sense of puzzlement, and people rightly asking ‘how have we got to this point?’ It’s a heartbreaking situation, a sense of sadness that we’ve got to where we are, as a lot of our students voted Lib Dem last year.”

Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor at Manchester said: “The University’s Board of Governors agreed to the headline fee of £9,000 very reluctantly, but we believe it is necessary to ensure and improve the quality of teaching and the wider experienced that we offer to all of our students, and it reflects the value of a Manchester degree in the employment market.”

Ms. Wakefield directed her ire not at the University of Manchester, but at government proposals, saying “This is fundamentally an ideological change and is not at all about saving money.”

The UMSU General Secretary sits on the University Board of Governors and abstained on the fees vote last week. She added: “Everything in me says that a £9,000 fee, and indeed the whole of the government’s policy on higher education, from student visas to the repayment system for fees, from the cuts to the commercialisation, is entirely wrong.

“In light of the swathes of funding cuts, for the governing body the risk of not increasing fees would have meant other measures, which in my view are also deplorable for the student body. The Vice-Chancellor and the board took this decision very reluctantly. It was genuinely very heavy in the room when the decision was made. They need to make the University financially solvent.

“It was just the unfortunate timing of the Browne Review and Comprehensive Spending Review which meant that people have been treating cuts and fees as the same debate, which they aren’t.” 

She is unhappy that there has not been proper debate about the future of universities and their place within UK society.  

“All the Vice-Chancellors are academics and have come through the system. They’ve been saying ‘The cuts are just happening’ rather than ‘let’s sit down and have a debate about higher education,’” she explained. And we’re still waiting for a higher education White Paper,” she said.

Labour lost a motion last November to postpone a vote on the tuition fee increases until the White Paper had been published.

“They [the government] have no idea what will happen in 2012, as it is hard to predict what entrance figures will be like for that year,” she added. “And two weeks before universities have to set their budgets the Higher Education Funding Council for England tells them how much money they will get.

“The university’s heart is in the right place and they do care about the student’s future, but their access agreements based on government proposals, and they’re not going to address the structural problem in our educational systems.”

The fees increase is subject to approval by the government’s Office for Fair Access.

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