University students face tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year following the Coalition Government’s unveiling of its plans for higher education last Wednesday.

The cap on tuition fees is to be raised from £3,290 to a basic threshold of £6,000, with an upper tier of £9,000 for universities signing up to a new National Scholarship scheme that will secure financial support for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

These proposals will have the effect of transferring the cost of courses away from the state and onto the student, with increased fees replacing the 40 percent higher education budget cuts specified in last month’s Spending Review. This means that many arts and humanities courses will almost entirely rely on funding from students’ fees.
Universities Minister David Willetts told the House of Commons that these reforms are “progressive” and iterated that, despite Lord Browne’s suggestion to remove the cap on tuition fees, the Government does not deem unlimited fees desirable.

The proposals quickly attracted fierce criticism from various bodies and resulted in a wave of student-led occupations across the UK, including one by Goldsmiths University students who occupied a Town Hall.

Gareth Thomas, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, condemned the reforms as a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people” and warned that they will “plunge our universities into turmoil and jeopardise Britain’s economic future”.

Professor Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities, maintained that proposals provide a “very unlikely” means of securing a “long-term and sustainable basis” for university funding, whereas the Russell Group of leading universities welcomed the proposals as “a life-saving cash transfusion”.

The National Union of Students (NUS) expressed its anger, with President Aaron Porter describing the proposals as an “outrage that could decimate access into our university system, remov[ing] public funding for universities and forc[ing] students to shoulder the bill for devastating cuts to teaching.

“The government is setting policy in the interests of a small number of elite universities and not in the interests of students. The Liberal Democrats frankly should be ashamed of themselves today because they stood on a manifesto to abolish fees; they signed personal pledges to students and their families.

“[They] would have felt incredibly uncomfortable as they heard David Willetts’ statement today knowing that they are being asked to railroad these proposals through Parliament and to betray the students and their families who voted for them.”

Porter had been due to speak in a public meeting at Sussex on Wednesday evening. However, in light of the morning’s announcement, he was required to co-ordinate the NUS’ campaigning and response. Consequently, NUS Vice-President Ed Marsh attended in his place.

Organised in anticipation of the national demonstration organised by NUS and the University and College Union (UCU) in London on 10 November, the purpose of the meeting was to debate the current situation of higher education and the way out of it. Accordingly, the discussion was expected to centre around the Browne Report and the impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review; however, the day’s proceedings added another dimension to the debate, chaired by Cameron Tait, the University of Sussex’s Students’ Union President.

Marsh was joined on the panel by Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary and former Sussex student and sabbatical officer, as well as by Clare Mackie, the university’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching.

As the debate progressed, it soon became clear that all three panellists were united in their objection to the coalition’s plans.
“The government is so preoccupied with the benefits that university provides for the economy that they are failing to consider the benefits to society at large,” said Marsh. “It is deeply ideological and regressive to remove all state funding for degrees that are considered somehow inferior to others.

“I encourage all students to attend next week’s demo; only when we are a truly national, radical movement do we stand a chance of successfully opposing these plans. I also advise students pile the pressure onto Lib Dem MPs who signed the pledge – for example, Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, and Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne.”

Hunt also emphasised the importance of collective action.

“The situation we are presented with couldn’t be more serious,” she maintained. “If we do not fight these proposals, thousands of young people will be left without a degree as higher education is reserved not for those with the ability to succeed, but for those with the ability to pay.”

Mackie, meanwhile, welcomed the chance to speak alongside the other panellists, commenting on their “shared understanding of the changing landscape of higher education” and claiming that her views of the proposed reforms were not far from Marsh’s and Hunt’s.

“I come from a working-class family in Glasgow and without access to free education in the seventies, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” she said, “so I am aware of the potential barriers that can exist. However, universities are being forced down this road by a national regime they have no control over.

“Lord Browne is a very convincing speaker and some of his principles, such as that access to university should depend on ability to benefit irrespective of background, I share.”

However, Mackie voiced her concerns “relating to the prospect of debt that his proposals will cause, which will deter the disadvantaged from pursuing higher education. It is argued that spreading repayments over 30 years will lessen the blow; however, there is nothing beneficial about saddling students with debt for decades and I have a problem with the burden of funding higher education being transferred onto students. I believe that we should fund universities by taxing corporations and individuals that can afford to care for weaker members of society.

“As a member of UCU, I believe in collective action and am committed to working closely with students to oppose further cuts throughout these difficult financial times.”

The university released a statement following Wednesday’s announcement, reiterating Mackie’s stance: “We will set our fees for 2012 next year, once we see the full range of government funding and the new student finance arrangements established.

“We will set the fees in such a way that we continue to offer the highest quality student experience and opportunities to talented applicants irrespective of background. We are committed to operating a ‘needs-blind’ admission system for our undergraduate degrees – so that students are offered places according to their ability to benefit, not according to their ability to pay.”

Cameron Tait believes “there is still time to oppose this, but the clock is ticking. March with us on Wednesday 10 November. Pressure the Liberal Democrats to keep their promises. These cuts have no legitimacy.”

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