Government plans to reform university funding and student finance in England

03 November 2010

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said:

“Lifting the fee cap to £9,000 for new students in England from 2012 is a welcome reform that will help our universities maintain and enhance their world-class status. Increased graduate contributions will provide a life-saving cash transfusion for a sector that would otherwise be seriously ailing from the spending review’s deep cuts. These reforms are the only way for the UK to remain a serious global player in higher education, while our international competitors are pumping billions into their leading universities. This is now make or break for our universities. Our graduates need to compete with the best in the world, and we would be letting them down if we did not ensure they get the very best education.

“There has been much misinformation about the effect of fees on access. The evidence is clear that fees do not deter poorer students from university – particularly when combined with a progressive repayment system, precisely as the Government is proposing. In fact, since the introduction of variable fees, Russell Group universities have attracted more students than ever from non-traditional backgrounds. Higher education is free to students and paid for by graduates. The generous graduate repayment scheme means that no student has to pay for higher education until they are earning a reasonable salary. We also believe the repayment system proposed by the Government is fair and progressive in protecting low earners, while asking higher earners to contribute a bit more through, as we proposed, variable interest rates.

“Russell Group universities are committed to attracting students with the most potential from all backgrounds, which is why we invest millions in bursaries and other initiatives designed to help the least advantaged students have the best possible chance of winning a place. Our universities will work hard to ensure that we continue to try all ways possible to attract bright students from low-income backgrounds but also to help them improve their academic achievement, which is the real cause of the problem. Indeed, by far the most important reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the grades they need at both GCSE and A-Level. [4] We are therefore happy to build on our solid track record in spending millions on initiatives to promote fair access and to help solve this serious problem.

“We will closely examine the conditions imposed on universities charging more than £6,000 to ensure they efficiently and effectively help meet our goal of widening access to leading universities for students from all backgrounds. We look forward to working with OFFA, the Government and others to improve any system by which access to our universities is assessed to ensure that it is robust, fair and consistent with both government objectives and to maintaining the academic standards of our universities.

“To remain in the higher education premier league, we must give our universities access to vital additional investment. Otherwise we will be relegated to the third division.”

Notes to editors

  1. A wide range of authoritative reports, have shown that fees have not had a negative impact access.  Demand for and participation in higher education has increased since the introduction of fees. Moreover, in recent years participation by students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds has increased faster than that of students from more privileged backgrounds.   (Source: Securing a sustainable future for higher education: An independent review of higher education funding and student finance, October 2010; Sir Martin Harris, What more can be done to widen access to highly selective universities?, May 2010; HEFCE, Trends in young participation in higher education, Jan 2010). 
  2. Reports claiming to show that higher fees will put people off going to university are usually based on attitudinal surveys (see for example the NUS/HSBC Students Research, November 2010).  Understandably enough, when asked, people say they do not want to pay higher fees. However, the evidence on behaviour is that more and more people are applying to go to university, including those from lower-income backgrounds.  Given the considerable benefits of higher education, and the nature of the graduate repayment system, it is an investment which people are increasingly prepared to make.
  3. The proportion of students from state schools at Russell Group universities has increased from 68.3% in 1997, to 74.5% in the most recent year. This growth in state school pupils is faster than for UK universities as a whole, where the proportion grew from 81.8% to 88.5%. (Source:  HESA Performance Indicators, Table 1a: Percentage of young first degree students entering higher education.)
  4. As Sir Martin Harris’ recent report highlighted, the link between socio-economic class and education attainment is very clear.  Disadvantaged students are less likely to achieve top grades at GCSE, more likely to leave school early, and less likely to achieve high A-level grades.  The report states that ‘analysis has confirmed that the single most important factor determining the probability of a student obtaining a place on one of the most academically demanding degree courses is the strength of the students own A level (or equivalent) results’.  (Sir Martin Harris, What can be done to widen access to highly selective universities, April 2010)
  5. Russell Group universities expenditure on measures to support access has always greatly exceeded OFFA’s requirements. In 2008-09, over 31,000 students from the very poorest backgrounds attending Russell Group universities received bursarial support averaging £1,523. This is nearly five times the minimum bursary of £310 required by OFFA.  Overall, about a third (31.8%) of Russell Group university students received a bursary or scholarship.’
  6. We have concerns about the existing HESA benchmarks for participation by under-represented groups as they do not provide an accurate picture of the population of students who are actually qualified to enter courses at the most selective universities. As Lord Browne has found the benchmarks ‘do not take sufficient account of institutions’ admissions requirements’ (Browne Review, p49).  The benchmark includes students who are qualified to a similar level, but may lack the specific qualifications in the right subjects to be accepted onto courses at a particular institution.  They also fail to take account of the profile of applications – raising the number of applications from students from under-represented groups is one of the main challenges faced by Russell Group institutions.  

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