Attack on Aspiration?

Bagehot writing in The Economist magazine of the 18th of December, finds it a shocking failure for a Conservative-led government that, in too many families, its plans for increased tuition fees are seen as an attack on aspiration. The government is said to have been too much on the defensive in the tuition fees debate and should have turned the argument around more and better presented its case that e.g. students will also be more empowered to shop around for the best value for their degree courses. This approach could then link increased tuition fees together with more decentralisation and power to local government, a volunteer-based Big Society and the more autonomous Free Schools, within a single, radical and Conservative concept aimed at limiting what should be expected from the State.
The opportunity is there to win such an argument if one considers the results of an opinion poll by ComRes, taken just after the first student protests in November. Although 70% of the public agreed that higher fees will deter poorer young people from applying to university, the same poll found that 64% of the public agreed that students should share the burden of public sector spending cuts.
Some Conservatives believe that higher tuition fees will empower students because the resulting higher, upfront loans, repayable only after the recipients are earning above a certain level, will in practice encourage students to seek out those courses seeming to offer the best value for money in getting a degree. Such competition for students will in turn force colleges to improve their teaching and offer innovations such as shorter, more intensive courses, courses more tailored to meet the needs of prospective employers, thereby making degrees more accessible not less.
As it is, the Independent School sector is already preparing itself for the impact of increased university tuition fees, which could force middle-income parents to think twice about private education in order to save for the university stage of education. There is concern about competition from top state and grammar schools when children could be withdrawn from private school e.g. at the 6th form stage to cut costs before a degree course. The Education secretary is also planning to allow high-achieving comprehensive and grammar schools to expand, which will in turn create more places for those who might otherwise have gone for private education. Although the independent sector is responding e.g. by freezing school fees for next year, there is concern that Independent Schools will instead become much more the domain of the elite, with middle-income parents hardest hit.
In the case of the poorest would-be university students, Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University and the next president of Universities UK, thinks that students from families on the lowest incomes should not pay tuition fees, in order to allow university Vice-Chancellors to charge other students the maximum amount. Therefore, he plans to scrap fees for the poorest students in an effort to widen participation, arguing that applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds do not want to get into debt. Indeed there is evidence from Ivy League universities in the US that the most effective way of increasing social mobility is to excuse those in most need from paying for their own tuition. In the case of Bristol University, the Vice-Chancellor proposes not only waiving tuition fees completely for the poorest students but also covering the cost of maintenance for such students. Professor Thomas also thought it apparent that as higher education was expanded in the past, it would not be possible for the taxpayer to carry all the cost, therefore making it inevitable that fees would have to increase.
The Higher Education White Paper is expected to set out rules governing universities that choose to charge fees above £6000 per year; there will have to be proof that the additional income is being used to increase numbers of students from low-income families.

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