Page last updated at 19:25 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Who won the tuition fees argument?

Fees protest, 2002
Fees protests did not stop the government
It was a fiercely fought debate. There were street protests, angry exchanges in the House of Commons, accusations of betrayal. Tuition fees seemed to pitch principle against pragmatism.

There were dire warnings that imposing fees on students would close university to poorer families, reversing the expansion that had helped open doors to previous generations.

On the other side of the debate, those in favour of fees argued that it was irresistibly fairer that those who benefited from higher education should make a contribution.

This extra cash would help to widen participation not narrow access, said the pro-fees lobby - which included most of the university sector and the government.

Higher interest

So who won the argument?

It is now more than a decade since the first fees were introduced in the UK at 1,000 per year - and five years since the government narrowly forced through its plans to raise the fees limit in England - with similar provision for Wales - to 3,000.

As for deterring applications - this has not happened. In 1997, there were 398,000 home students trying to get into university, in 2007 this had risen to 445,000.

The first of year of higher fees brought universities an extra 456m.

But below the headline successes, the picture is more complex.

The government has a target - which it will almost certainly miss - that by 2010 half of all young people will experience higher education.

In 1999-2000 the participation rate was 39% - by 2006-07 this had risen to 40%. However, while the rate for women had risen from 41% to 45%, it had fallen for men, from 37% to 35%.

In terms of attracting more young people from poorer families, there has been only modest change.

But the Office for Fair Access, reported that in the first year of the higher fee regime, universities spent 96m on bursaries and 20m on outreach.

Raising fees

Charles Clarke, England's education secretary when the fees were increased to 3,000 per year, says emphatically that the argument for tuition fees has been won.

"The most conclusive evidence is that only a few years afterwards there is very little criticism of it," he says.

University chiefs also now accept the inevitability of fees.

The first version of tuition fees, with up-front fees, did not work, says Les Ebdon, vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ group of new universities.

But the reform which saw fees raised but made repayable after students had graduated has been a success, says Prof Ebdon.

It brings money into higher education without putting off working class applicants, he says.

Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK, says the battle over tuition fees came when universities were "facing a stark funding crisis following years of under-investment".

He suggests that fees had become the only realistic option.

"The backlog of under-investment was so substantial that universities acknowledged it was unrealistic to expect the gap to be closed from the public purse," said Prof Trainor.

"Universities UK's position was that it was reasonable to expect graduates - and all those who benefit from higher education - to make a contribution to the cost of their tuition."

Student opposition

The National Union of Students, the most vociferous opponent of fees, eventually ended its campaign against the principle of charging students.

But it is now returning to the fray in terms of how students should be expected to make repayments - calling instead for students to pay back according to their earnings after graduation.

A spokesman for the students' union says the current arrangement - with a maximum of 3,000 per year - has always been a "stop gap".

The union has warned that if the cap on fees is lifted to 7,000 - as Universities UK has set out in one scenario - it would leave students with debts of 32,000 when they graduated.

The NUS is being supported by some Labour MPs, including Paul Farrelly, who says that the question of who won the argument remains undecided.

While more students have been recruited into university since fees, Mr Farrelly says that the aim to increase the representation of students from poorer families has not really succeeded.

If the first wave of tuition fees has opened the door to a future free market, he says the policy of introducing fees will have failed.

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