There are likely to be thousands of extra students in Leicester in the next few years. If the universities do the job they say they are trying to, they will be from less well-off backgrounds and no-one in their families will have benefited from higher education before.
This week Lord Mandelson, back in the Cabinet and now in charge of the country’s universities, made no secret of the fact that the Government is likely to lift the cap on tuition fees.
At the moment undergraduates pay just over £3,000 a year but, if vice-chancellors get their way, this could almost double, with different universities – and even different courses within the same institution – charging different prices.
I spoke to the registrar of one of Leicestershire’s universities today. He says academics are determined to attract the type of student whose family would never have dreamed of going into higher education before. The type of teenager from tough working class estates that I’ve talked about before in this blog.
He says it’s the lower expectations and the lower school results which are putting these youngsters off going to university, not the potentially high fees.
Is that right? Students I spoke to today seemed unanimous in their belief that higher fees would put people off going to university. They said they themselves had almost been deterred because of the cost. They had already seen classmates drop out because of tuition fees.
As the registrar told me, the fees should not be seen as a debt but as an investment in a future – graduates won’t have to start paying the bill until they’re in work and can afford it. And evidentally there will be bursaries for less well-off talented teenagers.
The trouble is, if the National Union of Students’ estimates of an average debt of £30,000 are correct, that could mean a lifetime of repayments. Those sorts of figures will, whether anyone likes it or not, prove to be a great obstacle; if only in people’s heads.
The fact is the argument is already over. When the decision was taken to aim for a 50 per cent higher education participation rate and tuition fees were introduced, the battle for “free” degrees was lost.
Someone has to pay and, of course, it’s in the national interest that we have the “world class education system” vice-chancellors say a rise in tuition fees will bring about. But an increase in prices will do nothing for the gaping class divide in this country that politicians have still woefully failed to bridge.
Universities are now genuinely trying to improve participation among Britain’s less well-off, traditionally less aspirational families. Higher tuition fees will make their job a whole lot harder.