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Tuition Fees

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011

No university wishing to charge over £6,000 yet knows for certain how much it will charge, since no university has yet signed an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. We expect there to be a wide range of charges, and those institutions discussing higher charge levels all look set to include substantial waivers for students from poorer backgrounds.

Hull university is reported to be planning to charge up to the £9,000 limit. Combined with this week’s announcement about the slashing by two thirds of the education maintenance allowance support to students, how will this help to attract more students from areas such as Hull to university, bearing in mind the excellent progress that was made under the Labour Government?

As the hon. Lady knows, and as we have discussed many times in this Chamber, the introduction of graduate contributions at the level we have will ensure that universities are indeed properly funded and maintain funding at world-class levels.

Is my right hon. Friend still reminding universities that it is unreasonable of them to charge fees significantly above the cost of providing the course and asking them to make sure that when they set their final fees in the coming weeks, they honour the cost that they said they would charge some months ago?

May I first thank my right hon. Friend for the extraordinarily useful work that he has been doing on social mobility? On his question, the Browne report estimated that universities would need to charge something in the order of £7,500 simply to replace their income, but no more, and that if they made the kind of efficiencies that other institutions are effecting, it could be as little as £6,000.

We have had the damaging row over student visas—still not sorted—and a Treasury growth paper that largely ignored the central role that universities have to offer for our economic future. However, the most serious problem is the considerable hole the Government are now staring at in their higher education budget—all because they ignored the many independent experts who warned, even before the tuition fees vote, that universities would charge close to the maximum fee level. Given the huge uncertainties facing university finances, all of them Government-created, does the Secretary of State not recognise that this House is entitled to know how that funding gap will be plugged?

First, the hon. Gentleman is terribly behind the times. He may not have listened to the Home Secretary’s statement on student visas, but she made it absolutely clear that there is no cap on student visas and that the study to work route is still available for overseas students. The universities have acknowledged that. There is no hole in the finances. If he had followed the public announcements that universities have made, he would have seen that of the 36 that we are aware of, 13 propose to charge up to the maximum. That is well below the 80% quoted by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. Of those universities, many will have substantial fee remission on the Oxford model.

I have discussed on many occasions with the Minister for Universities and Science my view that Governments should avoid unnecessary interference in universities. The enhanced role given to OFFA is causing great unease in the sector and among some Government Members. Will the Secretary of State clarify the powers that OFFA has and how it will be expected to deploy them in relation to universities that set fees above £6,000?

I think that there is complete clarity. I set out the position in a letter that I sent to OFFA some weeks ago, which is available and which I can certainly make available to the hon. Gentleman. It is absolutely right that, in return for being allowed to charge the higher fee levels, universities should make the maximum possible access available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a particular problem with traditional universities, where social mobility declined in the last decade. We are determined to overcome that.