Balliol College, Oxford, is planning to introduce a £500 a year levy to all new students next academic year. Is this a loophole that will allow universities to exceed the new £9000 p.a. fee cap without opting out of the public system entirely?
The Master of Balliol, Andrew Graham, describes the proposed new fee as a ‘domus charge’, and argues that it is necessary as a last resort to shore up the college’s ailing finances. It will be introduced next academic year in addition to the fees charged by the University of Oxford. Unlike the university fees, however, Balliol’s ‘domus charge’ will be payable ‘up front’ by all students. And since the college reportedly argues that the ‘charge’ is for the general maintenance of the college and is not directly for tuition it appears that this additional fee — let’s call it a ‘top-up fee’ — will not be subject to the new £9000 cap. Where Balliol goes, others are sure to follow. No doubt there are enough applicants willing to pay the top-up fee, although it is reasonable to assume that it will not help the college’s efforts to encourage applications from less well off backgrounds, not least the difficulties of getting non-white students to Oxbridge.
This issue exposes the ideological agenda that the government is forcing. In the face of the protests against tripling fees, the government’s main argument has been that graduates (or rather former students, since those who don’t graduate will still be liable) need to make a financial contribution to the costs of their own education. But we rarely hear a direct defence of the really radical dimension of the government’s scheme, which is not the principle of shifting the balance of contributions from the state to former students, but the introduction of a market in which universities compete on the basis of variable fees. Had the government’s objective been simply to raise more money from graduates it could have done so in other ways, either through a graduate tax, or by imposing a fee at the same level for all institutions. Although the government has not sold its plan in these terms, it is, in effect, giving students a ‘voucher’ in the form of a loan up to the value of £9000 per year of study, which they can take to any university who will admit them.
But what happens if, like Balliol, universities wish to charge ‘top-up’ fees of various kinds? Presumably if, like Balliol, they do so in such a way that the additional fee can be differentiated from the main tuition fee, they will be allowed to do so. There is absolutely no reason why such ‘supplements’ should be restricted to Oxbridge. The precedent will then have been set for a government loan that will cover only a portion of the actual tuition costs of attending university, and the fees ‘cap’ will have been breached. If the government’s real aim is the creation of a complete free market in Higher Education, they will, presumably, have no objection in principle to such a development.