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Tuition Fees

Volume 521: debated on Thursday 13 January 2011

Universities have not yet set their level of graduate contribution for 2012-13. Any institution in England wishing to charge above £6,000 must have an access agreement approved by the director of fair access. The Office for Fair Access will shortly begin discussions with individual institutions that intend to submit an access agreement under our demanding new requirements. We have always made it clear that £9,000 should be charged only in exceptional circumstances.

The Minister will be aware of the discussion within the university sector; many universities, especially Russell group universities, have already said that they are likely to charge at the higher level. Even some other universities are saying that to break even, they would need to charge more than £7,000. What modelling did the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills do when presenting its financial calculations to the Treasury, if it does not know the answers to questions that the universities appear to know?

We are waiting for universities to approach OFFA; they will have to submit a request to OFFA if they wish to go above £6,000. In our financial modelling, which we shared with the House, we made it clear that on average, replicating the income that universities are getting at the moment would involve fees of around £7,000. Of course, we are expecting universities, just like every other organisation in Britain, to make significant efficiency savings and hold down their costs.

My right hon. Friend will remember that under the previous Government a number of higher education institutions were categorised as being at risk of financial failure. In the light of the funding changes taking place, has he updated his risk assessment of the HE institutions at risk?

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has always kept an eye on the financial position of universities. As a result of the new revenues that universities will get from graduate contributions, we estimate that it is very possible that at the end of this Parliament universities could well have a higher combined cash income in total from the Exchequer than they do at the moment; that is a sign of our commitment to the strength of British universities.

Like the Minister for Universities and Science, the Secretary of State says that universities charging the full £9,000 in tuition fees will be the exception. No one independent thinks that that is credible. The Secretary of State also says that university leaders support his plans, yet not one university vice-chancellor supports the 80% cut in university teaching grants. He cannot even organise a scholarship fund without creating perverse incentives for universities to turn away students from the very poorest backgrounds, so just to get back to being Mr Bean the Secretary of State has quite a long journey ahead of him. Is it not clearer now that the trebling of tuition fees was not fair or necessary, and still has not been properly thought through?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. It was made clear when the House debated the issue last month that more than half of all vice-chancellors support our proposals, because, given the tough decisions that we have had to take on public expenditure, we have provided them with an alternative source of income, coming not through a quango but through the choices of students, who can be confident that they will have to pay for their higher education only after they have graduated and are earning more than £21,000 a year.

I know that the Minister recognises the force of the point made by the Glasgow university principal, Anton Muscatelli, in his recent article in The Sunday Times, about the fact that the decisions in England will inevitably create a funding shortfall for Scottish universities. Will the Minister again undertake to stay closely in touch, on behalf of the UK Parliament, with the Scottish Parliament, which has reconvened the all-party technical working group to look at the matter ahead of the all-important May elections?

I have ministerial responsibility for the financing of universities in England only, but the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we do keep in close contact with the devolved Administrations, because there are significant connections between decisions that we take in England and decisions that they take affecting Scotland and Wales.