Tuition fees set for a shake-up?

Will Hodges asks whether new research is likely to change government policy

As the first students to pay top-up fees head towards the end of their initial year of university, there have already been rumours that the new fees system could be overhauled.

A recent poll by the Sutton Trust, an education charity, showed that two-thirds of secondary school children are concerned about tuition fees following their recent rise to a maximum £9,000 a year. 28 per cent of those polled said that they saw tuition fees as the biggest financial barrier to pursuing a university education, while just 19 per cent pinpointed the cost of living.

Top down?

The poll undermines efforts by the government to put a positive spin on its decision to introduce top-up fees.

The government argued that the new system created a more egalitarian and transparent system, pointing to the fact that students no longer have to pay fees upfront, and to efforts to provide more support for poorer students.

It also claimed that the new system provided more encouragement to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. As part of the changes, the government asked university admissions offices to draw up "access agreements" to ensure the rise in tuition costs wouldn't put off such applicants. Universities have also been encouraged to spend more on outreach programmes and bursaries to target them.

Means to an end

But the poll result suggests more must be done. Chairman of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl, said: "Graduates face debts of over £40,000 with the higher fees and many will be paying for their university studies into their 50s," he said. "We are urging the government to means-test university fees, as used to be the case, so that those from low- and middle-income families pay less for tuition."

There have also been proposals that university fees could be cut. A recent study by the London School of Economics has suggested imposing a £6,000 annual cap. The shortfall in funding, it proposes, could be covered by the Treasury rather than universities, because of the consequential reduction in student loans required.

But the government has poured cold water on this proposal, claiming it would leave it facing a £2 billion a year shortfall. So without any other viable alternative to the current system, a reversal of the top-up fee reforms is unlikely. This leaves school pupils with only one way to to make their voices heard: through their university applications, or lack of them.