It has been proposed by Lord Patten of Barnes, the Oxford Chancellor, that middle-class parents who spend thousands on their children’s private education should be required to pay more for their university fees.

In his view, the current cap, set at £3140 by the government should be removed so that certain institutions are free to charge higher sums for their courses. His declaration has been widely criticised; the Students Union of Newcastle University, of which he is also Chancellor, have deemed it deeply concerning that he should describe the current cap as ‘intolerably low’. Similarly, Secretary of State for Universities, John Denham, has accused Patten of having ‘outmoded’ views and seeking to preserve the institution for a socially elite intake.

Such concerns have also been reiterated by Wes Streeting, President of the National union of Students, who fears such a move would result in ‘rich students being taught at rich institutions and students from poorer backgrounds being taught at poorer institutions’. Critics have argued that this would result in extensive polarisation of the quality of universities’ teaching and research as the institutions which would be able to charge the most already receive the lion-share of funding and tend to have wealthy alumni bases from which they receive contributions.

An alternative stance has been put forward by Martin Neale, Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research who suggests that ‘lifting the cap on tuition fees would improve the quality of academic research in Britain’. As well as helping to maintain their position on the international stage, Neale argues this change would also benefit students: by raising the cost of undergraduate degrees the top universities would be forced to reassess and improve what they were offering students.Your browser may not support display of this image.

The controversy on the issue of fees extends to the proposals by some that graduates who reap high financial returns in the private sector should pay more for their education than those who find employment in the voluntary or private sectors. Many fear that this is a potentially dangerous situation as high levels of student debt divert good graduates from the public sector by offering financial incentives elsewhere. Streeting’s solution is that there is a ‘need to have an increased contribution from the State and from business and to ask those graduates who have benefited financially from higher education to pay that little bit more back’. If the decision is taken by the government to lift the cap on tuition fees it is certain disputes over who should pay for these changes will only intensify.

By Sophia Hemsley

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