Government announces delay to higher education plans

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption, David Willetts wants to see a market in university fees

The government is to delay the publication of its plans to reform higher education in England, partly so that it can take into account what fees universities are likely to charge.

The Higher Education White Paper was due to be published by March 2011.

But universities minister David Willetts said he was delaying it in part to see how "price-setting works this spring".

It comes after MPs voted to raise fees to between £6,000 and £9,000 a year.

The vote was a difficult issue for the coalition government as the Liberal Democrats had opposed any rise in tuition fees.

Labour said the delay showed the coalition's plans for higher education were "in trouble".

Mr Willetts has repeatedly warned university vice-chancellors against automatically going for the higher fee level.

Concerns have been raised about the cost to the Treasury of providing subsidised loans to cover raised fees.

The government has used average fees of £7,500 to model its proposals, but higher education experts have suggested that most universities will want to charge nearer £9,000 to avoid being seen as a poorer option.

Speaking to vice-chancellors meeting in London, Mr Willetts warned that if average fees were above £7,500, the government would have to consider cutting teaching grants further by "making offsetting reductions".

The government's plans already assume cuts of about 80% to teaching grants, with the money to be replaced by raised tuition fees.

Originally ministers said higher fee levels would only be allowed in "exceptional circumstances".

Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial have all suggested they will charge £9,000 a year.

Mr Willetts said: "We have decided to take more time on developing the White Paper - in part to test proposals more thoroughly among the sector, student and other experts; in part to learn from how price-setting works this spring".

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said fee levels, and where and what students decided to study would influence how much money was available for universities.

He said the White Paper, which will set out the wider reforms to the university sector, was now likely to be published before June.

Universities have to submit their draft access agreements - their commitments on measures to help recruit disadvantaged students - to the Office for Fair Access in April.

These will then be finalised with the regulator and published in July.

'Off-quota students'

But in order to give vice-chancellors an insight into his plans, Mr Willetts confirmed that private providers would be allowed to access the government-subsidised student grants and loans system.

And he confirmed that he would be inviting debate on the issue of whether universities would be allowed to accept additional self-funding students.

These are students who pay for their courses themselves without recourse to the government package of fees and loans.

He said: "What are the pros and cons of universities being able to recruit additional students off quota at no cost to public funds, and can that be done in a ...socially progressive way?"

He also said he would work with the Home Office minister, Damian Green, to ensure that any controls on student visas "don't inadvertently make the UK less attractive to genuine students wanting to come and study".

And Mr Willetts said there would be a further review of post graduate study, taking into account the new funding structure.

'Sums don't add up'

Labour's shadow universities minister Gareth Thomas said: "The delay in publishing the White Paper on Higher Education is further proof that the government's plans are in trouble.

"Universities are having to plan their future whilst waiting for the government to make its mind up on a whole series of major questions.

"Trebling tuition fees isn't fair, wasn't necessary and it's increasingly clear; the sums don't add up either."

He has also written to Mr Willetts asking for clarification on a range of issues.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research intensive universities, said it was disappointing that the White Paper setting out the package of reforms was being delayed.

"With the sector getting to grips with changes to fee arrangements introduced before Christmas, the government must be aware that delaying the White Paper risks creating uncertainty and instability.

"Well targeted radical reform is welcome, but the aims and ambitions need to be clear."

'Future funding'

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU lecturers' union, said: "The situation around university fees is a complete debacle at the moment. Universities are essentially being told they cannot charge the fee they need to recoup money that government has cut, but at the same time that they must offer a better experience because students are paying higher fees."

Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said it was unfortunate that the white paper was being published later than expected.

"It means that universities will be setting their fees for 2012 without a clear steer on the shape of future funding."

He added: "But it is reassuring to hear the government's commitment to maintaining the outstanding international quality of our teaching and student experience."

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.