University tuition fees frozen at £9,250 for a year

By Oliver Barnes & Katherine Sellgren
BBC News

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Students in a classroomImage source, Alamy
Image caption,
There is still no long-term decision on whether to cut fees as a review recommended

University tuition fees in England will be frozen at a maximum of £9,250 for the next academic year.

The Department for Education (DfE) said a longer-term decision on cuts to fees would be delayed until the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

But education sector groups said the government "is wasting an opportunity" to help university students.

Ministers also set out plans to improve post-16 vocational education including student loans for adult learners.

The DfE also launched a consultation on changing the timetable for applying to university - to a so-called "post-qualification admissions" system.

This would mean admissions being based on the grades achieve by students, rather than not relying on predictions.

Fees and grants

The government outlined its plans for higher education reforms for over-18s in response to a landmark review, commissioned by the government from finance expert Philip Augar. Its recommendations were published in May 2019.

Planned reforms include making £2.5bn available for technical qualifications for adult learners through the National Skills Fund, a lifelong student loan entitlement for up to four years of higher education and the prioritising of funding for STEM subjects.

But the Augar review's recommendations to reduce tuition fees to £7,500, alongside implementing reforms to minimum entry standards and foundation years at universities, were not addressed in this latest response.

The DfE said given the pandemic "now is not the right time to conclude the review in full".

Any further reforms are expected to be announced at the next Spending Review.

Mr Augar also suggested the return of maintenance grants for poorer university students as part of his review, but there was not mention of this in the interim response.

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: "Sadly this interim response confirms that there will not be a radical change to the current system.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
The Augar review recommended tuition fees should be cut to £7,500 and maintenance grants reintroduced

"The Westminster government is wasting an opportunity to make a real difference for students and institutions."

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK , welcomed the prospect of lifelong loans, saying "it is encouraging to see government's commitment to making lifelong learning opportunities more accessible to all".

However, Prof Buckingham said "government should provide maintenance grants for those who need them the most, including those considering studying shorter courses on a modular basis".

Meeting local needs

As part of its Skills for Jobs White Paper, published alongside higher education reforms, the DfE said it wanted to "put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success and a good job and that further and technical education is the second-class option".

A white paper is a policy document produced by the government to set out their proposals for future legislation.

The measures put forward include:

  • business groups working alongside colleges to develop skills plans to meet local training needs
  • a £65m development fund to establish new college business centres
  • giving employers a central role in designing almost all technical courses by 2030, ensuring education and training is linked to skills needed
  • boosting the quality and uptake of higher technical qualifications by introducing newly approved qualifications from September 2022
  • changing the law so that from 2025 people can access flexible student finance to train and retrain throughout their lives

In December, the government announced that tens of thousands of adults without an A-level or equivalent would be able to benefit from nearly 400 fully-funded courses from April.

It was the first major development in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Lifetime Skills Guarantee (LSG) scheme, which was launched in September.

Image source, Association of Colleges
Image caption,
The government wants to boost the status of vocational education

Mr Johnson said it would mean "everyone will be given the chance to get the skills they need, right from the very start of their career".

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "These reforms are at the heart of our plans to build back better, ensuring all technical education and training is based on what employers want and need, whilst providing individuals with the training they need to get a well-paid and secure job."

British Chamber of Commerce director general Adam Marshall welcomed the plans to put the skills needs of businesses at the heart of further education.

"As local business leaders look to rebuild their firms and communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it is essential to ensure that the right skills and training provision is in place to support growth," he added.

Funding concerns

But organisations representing school and college leaders are also sceptical that there is enough funding for the further education sector to deliver on the proposals.

In November, an the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said FE colleges and sixth forms faced significant financial uncertainty.

Chief executive of the Association of Colleges David Hughes said: "Colleges have been calling for this, after years of being overlooked and underutilised, but government has to not only recognise the vital college role, it also needs to increase funding."