Russell Group Red Herrings

The battle lines over control of tuition fees have been drawn and its plain to see the fight will be dirty.

We say this after receiving one Russell Group uni newsletter where it looks to us that their strategy is to divert attention away as much as possible from the matter at hand i.e. putting a lid on £9k tuition fees.

Red Herring 1: The uni in question claims the Government is communicating with them only through the press.

Red Herring 2: They say that the issues of pricing and fair access have been conflated.

Red Herring 3: There doesn’t seem to be any consensus within Government as to how to address this – quotas, the Office of Fair Access (OFFA).

Red Herring 4: The uni complains that capping fees below £9k doesn’t take into account running costs, funding cuts, increased taxes and greater international competition.

Red Herring 5: Significant improvements have been made in participation of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds under the current arrangements.

Red Herring 6: OFFA has no legal remit where fees are concerned, and should concentrate on fair access as opposed to participation.

Red Herring 7: Research exists showing that it is too late to help the current generation access HE.

We smell fish.

For one thing, the notion of greater international competition for undergraduates is more a hope than a reality. Postgrads and researchers, perhaps. But 18 year olds? The proportion of international undergrads, however lucrative, is dwarfed by that of domestic students. This may change, but it is wrong to complain about something that hasn’t happened yet, and the days of an open market university system is a long way off

The uni also have the temerity to say that through the good work of admissions staff much has been done to increase lower class participation. How sad. There couldn’t be any clearer indication than this that they just don’t get it.

To repeat their own figures: 7% of kids go to private schools so only 7% of uni students should be from those schools. That is fair. Having an informal, unregulated, antiquated and highly subjective system of in-house admission gatekeepers clearly isn’t. Nor does it work. You only have to look at Oxford’s admissions figures to know that.

Apparently OFFA’s job is only to promote fair access and not to widen, or to broaden, HE participation in higher education. But we don’t recognise this difference. We’re talking about the same thing. Access will only be deemed to be fair when participation rates reflect the national demographic.

Worryingly, we are told that OFFA doesn’t have the authority to set or regulate fees. Is this a sign of things to come? Could we see the Russell Group taking the Government to court over a fees cap?

The most shocking thing about the newsletter is the cherry-picking of research to prove a point. We know politicians do this but unis? Shouldn’t they be above such things?

We are told that recent research has emphasised the importance of pre-school years, and the role played by socio-economic factors in educational advantage. As a result, there is no point in OFFA doing anything because it will be too late.

Really? Try telling that to the many late-starters on FE access courses and alike who, against considerable odds and without the support of Russell Group managers it seems, fulfil their ambition to get to uni regardless.

It may be that in the long term “universities are likely to serve the objective of social mobility best by engaging with schools in supporting efforts to enhance attainment and raise aspirations”, and do this through American-style scholarships and bursaries.

Nevertheless, the current generation of would-be students needs help. They need it now and anyone with a social conscience and willing to see the bigger picture will know that £9k pa couldn’t possibly make things any better.

No amount of red herrings will change that.

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