MPs warn of two-tier HE system

Gwen Jing 17 November 2011

A cross-party group of MPs has issued a critical report warning that government plans for higher education reforms could lead to a two-tier system and hurt social mobility.

The business, innovation and skills select committee is sceptical about the benefits of recently released government proposals to increase competition for universities in England by abolishing student intake quotas.

Ministers hope to create more of a market through allowing institutions to compete for over 85,000 places. Universities will be able to bid for 20,000 places will be set aside in an auction for establishments charging annual fees of £7,500, and earlier this week 27 institutions announced that they would adopt the lower fee bracket. With the average fee across all universities at £8,393.00 for the upcoming year.

Although universities minister David Willets has claimed these reforms hold “student choice at the heart of our education system”. Concerns have been raised that they will create polarisation in higher education between ‘traditional’ universities – with annual fees raised to £9,000 as of 2012 – and ‘low-cost alternatives’.

In turn, there have been fears that this will affect social mobility if able students from lower socio-economic backgrounds feel constrained to choose the lower-cost option. CUSU access officer Taz Rasul told The Cambridge Student, “When polls already show most people do not believe a £9000pa degree to be worth it, having two major fee bands with an unrestricted market mechanism in the lower band only makes it easier for students from less advantaged backgrounds to be attracted away from top universities”.

The report encourages universities to monitor the social mix of students taking up university places, and to act quickly if a two tier system appears to be developing. It also argues that financial support should be targeted at current students and focused on providing money for living expenses, rather than reducing debt through fee waivers.

Some students argue that they would not be deterred; first year Fitzwilliam student Matt Kuber said he would still apply for a top university like Cambridge despite higher fees, arguing that a degree is an “investment for the future”.

Sioned French, a first year Veterinary Science student disagreed. She said: “At the end of my degree, I have to pass a standardised exam so I would not gain much more value from going to Cambridge.”

Gwen Jing