First they rip you off… then they con you – How unis twisted numbers to “cut” fees

Detail behind the stats show unis have become more elitist, rather than cutting fees. // Photo: Flikr CC, Frandroid Atreides

Earlier this month it was widely reported that 25 universities had lowered their tuition fees to £7,500. The move allowed them to access a pool of 20,000 extra students, purposely set aside by the government.

The Mail said “One English university in five is to slash tuition fees to below £7,500”. The Telegraph reported that the universities “have lowered their tuition fees to below £7,500 a year”. And PoliticsHome said “25 universities and colleges have announced they are to reduce their tuition fees”.

They were all wrong. Most of the universities did not, in fact, make any changes to their fees. It was an illusion.

Rather than course fees being lowered for everyone, the average fees have been pushed down by the introduction of new scholarships for high-achievers only. The £7,500 figure is only reached when these are taken into account. The actual fees, for everyone else, remains the same.

Figures from the Office of Fair Access (Offa) show that only three of the 25 universities now have average fees lower than £7,500 when waivers are not included.

Five of the universities still have average fees above that amount even when all means-tested scholarships are taken into account. In Offa’s books, these places do not get within the £7,500 threshold.

But although the Offa figures only take means-tested fee waivers into account when calculating averages, university bids for extra students will be based on Hefce calculations – which include all types of bursaries.

This means that some universities have been able to give the impression they are cutting fees when, in fact, they are trying to make themselves more elitist by introducing new scholarships for successful students instead.

For instance, at Aston University, a new scheme will award £4,000 to applicants with AAB at A-level. But for students without a scholarship, tuition fees are still set at £9,000.

A similar scheme at the University of Wolverhampton is for students who have “exceeded expections” and not based at all on family income. Students are awarded £1,000 in their final year to reward academic achievements if they are selected by their department. Students who do not get selected for any scholarship will have to pay an average of £8,300.

Averages fees for the University of Hertfordshire have also been affected by work placement years, where students do not have to pay tuition fees. Meanwhile, at the University of West London, a new bursary will be given to just 16 hand-picked students. Department heads nominate individuals who are given the second year of their degrees for free.

You can see the data here, or download it as a CSV file here.

The data is originally from the access agreement data (published July, 2011) and the updated access agreement data (published December, 2011). Both can be found here.

A note about the data:   Some of these figures do not quite add up because Offa accidentally rounded up the revised estimated fee averages, but didn’t round up the original figures. Offa say they will revise this on their website. Either way though, this doesn’t affect the overall picture. In the case of Wolverhampton, the larger discrepancy is caused by a course that had not been registered in time for the original figures.

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