Students Fight For The Future of Higher Education in University Court

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In a year that has seen many significant student victories on key issues like Academic Contact Time and Rent Deposits to name a few, Lancaster University students have once again been flexing their muscles this last month, however this time during a debate organised by the University Court; on an issue close to every students heart, that of Variable Tuition fees and Higher Education Funding. This special meeting was held on Thursday 10th April and was attended by over 60 members of court with many senior University officials, local councillors and dignitaries being in attendance; however none were more outspoken or passionate in their views than those of the 20 strong student officer delegation.

In addition to the fees debate, the members of court also received presentations by several key note speakers on issues surrounding Higher Education funding both here at Lancaster and as part of the national scale, with Lancaster’s own Professor Bob McKinlay, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Professor Geraint Johnes taking the floor to speak. The assembled members of court were also fortunate to receive a presentation by Wes Streeting the newly elected NUS National President and current VP for Higher Education, who spoke out on the subject of NUS’ new stance on fees and set out their new direction for ensuring a fairer funding system in Higher Education.

In an area which sets us out from most of the HE sector to date, Lancaster University decided to hold the debate on variable fees in direct response to a statement made to the Annual Meeting of University Court by Student Union President Tim Roca, who commented on the need and importance of having an open discussion on variable fees here at Lancaster prior to the Governments’ 2009 review of Higher Education Funding. The future of Higher Education Funding has been an issue of increasing importance across the sector in recent years, which has largely, came about after the implementation of the new top-up fees, brought in by the 2004 Higher Education Act. This Act allowed for “variable” fees, which enable universities to charge full-time undergraduates up to £3,000 per annum. However there has been significant uproar amongst the student population recently after suggestions have been made that Universities and the Government will seek to lift the maximum fee cap in the pending 2009 review, consequently many Universities will be able to demand fees as high or low as they choose and further the destructive marketisation of Higher Education here in the UK.

During the debate many points were raised, covering issues like the increasing utilitarianism of the HE sector, students as consumers or co-producers and the growing impact that variable funding would have on the student experience. However throughout the debate there were several continuing themes which came up, notably around the issues of Access and Widening Participation into Higher Education and soaring levels of student debt. Several student officers expressed their fears that if there was an increase in the level of tuition fees it would act as a barrier to access for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and prove to be a contradiction from both the Universities and the sectors widening participation agendas.

Chris Cottam, LUSU Education & Welfare Officer commented:
“Tuition fees are already a significant disincentive to higher education entry, particularly for those from non-traditional backgrounds. Therefore any attempt to lift the cap on fees would only exacerbate this situation, and deny many students from poorer backgrounds; regardless of their academic ability, the right to a University education.”

In a recent NUS study it was noted that, the average 2006-2007 graduate leaving University will have an estimated debt of over £13,000, with the introduction of higher fees this figure is set to only increase and by 2020 this figure could even reach as high as £40,000, a heavy price to bear for any student particularly if current UK economic trends continue. Unsurprisingly this was an area of particular interest for many student officers and members of court alike, and is something which should not be taken lightly. If the government wants to pursue its target of 50% HE admissions, then considerably more will need to be done to ensure students are not out priced of receiving a university education. It is also important to note issues surrounding the pay gap for both women and British Minority Ethnic (BME) students, and that any increase in fees would only increase pay inequalities that penalise female and BME graduates diminishing the incentive to gain a university education

While discussing tuition fees, it is often all to easy to focus our arguments around home full-time undergraduate students, however it is important we don’t forget that there are other student demographics who are adversely affected by tuition fees, the prime examples being Post-Graduate and International students, who often face unregulated fees which continue to rise without any real explanation or justification. Lancaster University has made it clear in recent years that it will be looking to increase both its Post-graduate and International student numbers, so it is important that any future discussions at Lancaster reflect this so we can ensure that these students, who make up a significant proportion of our student population are paying a fair price, and receiving the quality of education they deserve.

For many people present, the evening’s discussions were not long enough, however were important in highlighting the shear number and complexity of issues that are affecting universities over Higher Education funding during the next year. This debate was only a starting block for what needs to be a thorough and frank consultation period over the next year, of which students need to be at the heart of. There are many issues that the student movement will face over the next year in relation to variable fees but it is vitally important that we continue to fight for what should be fair funding system for Higher Education, and one which doesn’t see students bear the sole brunt of the cost. These sentiments echo those of LUSU President Tim Roca who commented.

“It’s important that we have this debate and we make it part of the process. As students we have a duty to ensure that in the 2009 review the economics of disenfranchisement don’t beat the basic idea of fairness.”