David Blackburn

Mandelson’s flawed tuition fee proposals

Mandelson's flawed tuition fee proposals
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Lord Mandelson’s suggestion that tuition fees will be raised only if universities extend opportunity was uncompromising:

I'm not prepared and the government is not prepared to see an increase in fees and funding for the universities without the link being made to wider participation and access.”

The government intends to widen access by make well-off students pay increased fees, said to be around £7,000, and offer no-fee degrees to students who live at home. Broadening access is essential and Mandelson is correct to aspire to a ‘higher education system that widens access and increases social mobility even as it fosters excellence’. However, the proposed initiatives are monumentally flawed. NUS President Wes Streeting says that no-fee degrees do not offer “the traditional (university) experience - the moving away, the gaining of friends and independence”, which makes it harder for underprivileged students to escape their background: “Poorer students…could be stuck in the communities they grew up in." On shifting the burden of tuition fees to the middle class, it is worth noting that drop-out rates have increased since tuition fees were introduced: rising from 6.7% for 2005-06’s intake to 7.4% for 2006-2007. Making middle-class students, who according to This is Money, accrue £20,000 debts already; shoulder more debt in the current climate is foolhardy and could force more students to drop-out of university.

Another explanation for the rising drop-out rate is that Labour’s open access drives have put students on degree courses they can’t complete, having received inadequate secondary education. Neither the Higher Education Statistics Agency nor the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills publish data for drop-outs by subject, but the technical knowledge and expertise required of science and mathematics students means that if they lack the basics they have little hope of success. As Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, has said: “Evidence shows that academic achievement to be the key factor in determining whether a student will go on to university”. Mandelson’s statement did not address the issue of failing secondary schools and he is wrong to force universities to socially engineer where the government has failed.