Over the past year, Lord Browne has led the highly controversial Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, a.k.a. ‘The Browne Review’. As of Tuesday 12th October 2010, the review has concluded that student debt could soar, varying depending on the quality of the university you wish to attend.

The review has been said to provide a blank cheque to universities as there will no longer be a fixed price for tuition fees in England; the price of education is likely to be at each individual university’s discretion and could amount to as much as £12,000 a year. Indeed, Browne’s review makes it clear that universities choosing to charge over £6,000 will have to give some of this back to the government to help cover the cost of student borrowing, but institutions charging as much as £12,000 still stand to keep around three quarters of the profit.

It has been claimed that students won’t be left to a mortgage-style amount of debt after university. At £12,000 a year however, this seems hard to believe. Instead, students will only begin to pay back what they owe when they’re earning over £21,000 per year raising the benchmark from the previous level of £15,000 per annum. The review also insists that these changes will not neglect those in a poorer financial situation, and that an increased support system will be in place for those wanting to go to a university that they can no longer afford.

The question is – if the rich can afford it, and the poor get support, what will become of the large portion of students who come from middle class backgrounds? Moreover this poses problems for the universities themselves; the market will now be extremely competitive and many smaller universities will have to face the prospect of closure. Conversely, elsewhere in the UK, Scottish students studying in Scotland do not have to pay any fees at all, and in Northern Ireland and Wales, fees are charged up to a maximum of £3,290.

A University of Nottingham spokesperson said: “We welcome Lord Browne’s independent review as a comprehensive, fair and realistic response to the need for a properly funded higher education system. This review is highly significant and represents a genuine attempt to secure a future for world-class higher education in the UK”. He went on to argue that the reviews proposals are “much fairer and more efficient than a graduate tax” as well as stressing the fact that the review does not propose up-front fees, and would benefit students who go into lower income professions.

This contrasts markedly with the positions adopted both by the NUS and the Nottingham SU. The SU pointed out that a recent survey revealed that 81% of Nottingham students are opposed to the uncapped funding model proposed by the review; with Will Vickers, President of University of Nottingham Students Union, commenting: “These proposals will see many students leaving university with crippling levels of debt before they have even started out in life. As far as our members are concerned any increase in fees must be rejected. This report is short-sighted and the panel are clearly out of touch with the pressures of student life.” Similarly, the NUS described the review as “Foolish, risky, lazy, complacent and dangerous.” A significant gap on this issue has developed, with universities and students taking diametrically opposing positions. Significantly, this issue has the potential to fracture the coalition government. The Liberal Democrats had pioneered the concept of a graduate tax – recently abandoned by Vince Cable, the current Business Secretary – which is now the favoured solution of the Labour Party. While the Conservatives have been broadly supportive of the review, all sitting Lib-Dem MPs signed a pledge promising to vote against any increase in tuition fees during the election campaign. While Cable has been attempting to bring Lib-Dem backbenchers into line by proposing a more moderate version of the proposals, a revolt on this issue could quite easily split the government.

Kate Walsh and James Rathbone

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