Tuition fee cut 'would force universities to reduce student numbers’

Students sit in lecture hall listening to speaker
by Hayley Pearce | 13 Mar 2019

Russell Group says humanities courses at highest risk without government top-up

The UK’s leading universities have warned that student places would be in danger if cuts to undergraduate tuition fees are not topped up with extra government funding.

Humanities courses, like English, history and languages, would be most at risk, they say.

Vice-chancellors in the Russell Group of universities, which includes Exeter, Bristol and Sheffield universities, are preparing for tuition fees to be sliced from £9,250 to an expected £7,500 when the Augar review, commissioned by Theresa May, is published.

For classroom-based subjects, charging students £9,250 a year barely covers costs. If the government does not provide compensation to make up the shortfall, numbers of humanities and social sciences students would have to be reduced.

In jeopardy

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “The prime minister’s post-18 review looks as though it could settle on a headline-grabbing cut to tuition fees alongside a series of teaching grant top-ups for certain subjects.

“We assume the government will want to show its commitment to fully fund clinical and STEM subjects such as medicine and engineering, although experience tells us this can’t be taken for granted.

“Left hanging out to dry could be subjects such as English, history and modern foreign languages. Non-STEM courses are studied by around 53% of undergraduates. With their funding slashed, it is inevitable their survival will be put in jeopardy.”

Vice-chancellors echoed Bradshaw’s comments, with Koen Lamberts at the University of Sheffield saying a tuition fee cut unmatched by extra income would mean the government was dictating which courses universities should teach, The Guardian reported.

“There is only so much teaching we can provide at a loss,” Lamberts said. “Of course we want to see science, engineering and maths protected, but linguists and economists are vital for the economy too.

“If the government cuts fees but doesn’t replace the money, with a promise it will keep up with future demand, ministers are effectively reintroducing a cap on student numbers. I don’t think Whitehall should get into this level of workforce planning and indirectly tell universities which subjects we should and shouldn’t teach.”

Constraints

Under the current system in England, the fees for all undergraduates are £9,250 a year, with the government giving additional grants to top up funding for high priority or expensive courses like medicine, engineering and physics.

The Russell Group says the income from domestic fees and grants is already well below teaching costs for lab-based science, engineering and technology subjects and for other intermediate-cost subjects such as archaeology and the creative arts.

The group says that while it is not against cuts in tuition fees, it is against cuts in funding for universities.

A member of the group said: “Ultimately our concern is that, whatever the funding mechanism, there is enough money for universities to do their job properly and particularly to avoid constraints on places.”

Outside the Russell Group, uncompensated tuition fee cuts would cause financial difficulties for universities that are already struggling, especially those teaching mainly classroom-based subjects to undergraduates who are predominantly from England.

‘Daylight robbery’

In a TSR thread about the proposed fee cut putting university places at risk, MrAwesomeeee said: “Honestly, I want to be sympathetic to universities in this case but just simply fail to understand how with fees of £,9250 annually (some of the highest in the world) universities are still on the brink, finance-wise.

“Surely if fees are cut to the proposed £7,500 unis should be able to manage, I mean £9,250 is already practically daylight robbery.”

In response, DarthRoar pointed out the huge overheads HE institutions are saddled with: “Universities have massive costs. Building upkeep, academic staff salaries, research costs, totalling hundreds of millions per year.

“Cutting fees would require the government to give universities money for each place. Of course, the government doesn't have unlimited money so they have to put some sort of cap on the number of places for every given year.

“Your ‘Ah they should be able to manage’ shows no understanding of the world.”

In another TSR thread on whether fees should be cut, abolished or left alone, Decahedron said: “If a university is already struggling when fees are insanely high then they aren't a sustainable business and need to go bust. 

“From a purely governmental standpoint they should cut fees because at least then they might have better chance of recouping the cost. As it stands of the £34 billion owed (post-2012 loans), £14 billion will have to be written off due to non-payment. They should cut their losses and set fees at a reasonable cost that can be paid back in full.”

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