Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton Don Nutbeam has said that he is ‘quite schizophrenic’ over the University having to charge £9,000 per year in tuition fees – explaining he is in two minds over the issue.
He told the Wessex Scene, ‘I cannot for one moment say that I am happy to oversee such a large increase in fees. I’m quite schizophrenic really; on the record, such large fees are not good for education, but on the other hand, I am Chief Executive of a large organisation - I have to do what’s in the best interests of the University.’
The Wessex Scene reported Monday that the University of Southampton intends to charge the maximum amount possible in tuition fees for the 2012 academic year. After it was officially announced yesterday (see the University’s press release here), Southampton looks set to currently become the 32nd University to charge the maximum £9,000, out of 45 Universities to have already declared fees for the academic year after next.
Universities Minister David Willetts said earlier this year that universities would only charge the maximum full amount in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
The proposed fee level put forward by the University of Southampton, however, is dependent upon its acceptance alongside an access agreement put forward by the University to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) later this year. Southampton must prove that they have sufficient measures to ensure they are widening participation through their access agreements, the government have warned, or they will be prevented from charging over £6,000. However, as noted when the Wessex Scene spoke to Mr. Willetts in February , OFFA as yet cannot enforce any power over Universities to either ensure that they do offer acceptable measures to widen participation, or penalise Universities if they do not meet this criteria.
On whether OFFA will approve Southampton’s proposals, Prof. Nutbeam says: ‘I just don’t know. We’ve put a lot of thought into our application, and have been very careful. There’s no trickery, what you see is what you get. Other nearby Universities who aren’t doing as well haven’t put in as much of a generous offer…’
Does Prof. Nutbeam mean Southampton Solent University? ‘No Comment’ he responds.
The Wessex Scene reported earlier this month that Solent intends to charge £7,800 in fees.
So why did the University set fees for 2012 as £9,000 when original rumours suggested a figure nearer to £8,000 and a recent UCU report claimed the University only needed to charge £6,644 per year to balance government cuts to education?
‘We always said at or about the high end of £9,000. At that time, and now still really, we are still finding out more about government funding,’ the Vice Chancellor claims. ‘We’ve not got good news from the government so far; they’ve reduced funding by £3million this year and £3million next year where our capital investment, which is our money for buildings, will also be reduced by £14million. Because of this consistent bad news, we’ve had no alternative but to charge £9k for the academic year 2012.’
Yet what is the surplus amount being spent on, the Wessex Scene asks; ‘library, offices, lecture and seminar rooms, infrastructure’, Prof. Nutbeam replies. £6,644 is ‘true only if all we are trying to do is replace the reduction in the teaching grant.
‘When you’re factoring in cost, you are also trying to provide support so have to charge more. If you just took the strict interpreted £6,500, then you wouldn’t have a library, the support for a sophisticated teaching environment.’
Measures Southampton has proposed to ensure that they meet criteria on widening participation expected by OFFA include fee waivers for 21% of graduates starting in 2012. (Full details of which can be found here). Students starting in 2012 from households that earn less than £25,000 a year will only have to pay £6,000 in tuition per year, and students from households that earn less than £30,000 a year won’t pay more than £7,000 a year in fees. In fact, fee waivers up to £200 will be given to any student in a household that earns less than £42,600 per year.
The University has also said that their current bursary programme will be replaced with a focused scheme worth £300,000 to support students from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Alongside this, Southampton will be incorporating additional ‘hidden costs’ of courses as part of their standard fee, such as field trips. When asked if this will mean that the University pays the full or a part amount of a course field trip Prof. Nutbeam says, ‘I just don’t know yet’.
A student ‘Southampton Entitlement’ fund of £300 will be also available to all students to be ‘spent on services such as sports membership, access to campus arts venues and local public transport’, and an additional £1 million will be spent on the Career Destinations department and improving student employability.
The Wessex Scene was told by a student involved with discussion at the University that they were led to believe the University’s entitlement fund would be £400, not £300. In response to questioning, Prof. Nutbeam, who was appointed as Vice Chancellor for Southampton University in 2008, replies: ‘If I’m honest, I’d only really heard £300. We want a balance between outstanding experience for everyone and providing access. Both cost more.’ He said that he would like to point out that the total investment in access by 2012 will be £10 million.
The University is also part of the Russell Group, of which every member so far to have announced fees have declared to be charging 9k for the 2012 academic year. Is this planned by Universities in the Group? ‘Absolutely not,’ Prof. Nutbeam responds. ‘When the Russell Group first met after the Brown Review and government’s proposals, the Director General of the Russell Group said that any discussion would be illegal. We were extremely diligent to not discuss that matter in any way, as a group and between individuals.’
However some students have said they are unsurprised universities are charging the same maximum amount. Andrew Gorman graduated with a degree in Economics and Actuarial Sciences from the University of Southampton last year and is currently studying for a PGCE. He draws attention to the problems of more universities charging higher fees, and argues that ‘when a student studies for a degree, they not only benefit themselves but also society in general. Medical students save people’s lives; bio-chemists can create cleaner energy supplies; psychology students develop theories on behaviour patterns.’
He continues, ‘from a personal experience of teaching at the moment, most kids don’t have ambitions of college or university. They don’t see the point if EMA has gone and tuition fees are so high.’
The Wessex Scene spoke to prospective students visiting campus for the day about the issue. 22 year-old Paul Engelen won’t be affected by the proposed changes to fees as he hopes to start at Southampton this September, but acknowledged that this made him ‘very lucky’. He said: ‘I’m glad to dodge that bullet, but I don’t think it would’ve put me off going to Southampton still, as long as the fees are not paid upfront. Students should demand high quality for what they are paying though, you should be able to ask for that. I don’t think the proposals are terrible if they are done properly, I just don’t think they have been done properly yet.’
The Wessex Scene also asked Vice Chancellor Professor Nutbeam about a claim by Lib. Dem. MP Tim Farron in a recent Channel 4 dispatches programme that some Vice Chancellors were leading students and Student Unions to believe that they were not planning to charge the full £9,000, when in fact were secretly lobbying parliament so they could charge the maximum amount. The Vice Chancellor dismisses this as ‘cheap politics’ by MPs and claims ‘there is no Vice Chancellor in the country that is happy to head a University at this time, having to announce higher fees.’
So is Professor Nutbeam unhappy as Vice Chancellor now then?
‘I enjoy my job’, he argues, ‘but I cannot for one moment say that I am happy to oversee such a large increase in fees. I’m quite schizophrenic: on the record, such large fees are not good for education. If this is a response to the economic situation, and not an ideological move from the government then we should return to the issue in a few years’ time. On the other hand… we need to charge at least £8000 to recover from the known cuts to funding, not even considering any more cuts, which there may well be. By 2014, the University will be down £55million from previous funding, that’s a vast amount to recover.’
I ask the Vice Chancellor if he really thinks the move is not an ideological one taken by the government, considering it looks set to lose over £1 billion in its education budget after not anticipating most Universities to charge the full £9,000 amount.
‘I don’t know what the government was thinking.
‘There was only 6-8 weeks between the outcome of the Browne Review and legislation being passed in parliament, there’s been no time for sensible re-modelling of student debt. I just don’t know what the knock-on-affect will be.’
I also tell Prof Nutbeam that I studied Humanities at Undergraduate level at Southampton University and if I had to pay £9,000 in fees then probably would have re-considered this; does the University expect to see a decline in applications to study the Humanities, and what provision is he making for students studying such degrees?
He replies: ‘there may be some shift as a short-term reaction to fees in humanities and other areas, but I don’t believe it will be sustained. The career prospects of our students are significantly better than other universities. Our humanities students get a lot of transferable skills as I’m sure you know: writing, researching. There may be some instinctive reaction for more students applying to vocational courses such as Management, Engineering and Law, but in the long-term I think people will still see our Humanities courses with great merit.’
I ask would Prof. Nutbeam have studied at University if he had to pay £9,000 per year?
‘Well it was 1974 when I went to University. I hadn’t intended to go to University. I worked in a bank and was perfectly content. It was only because the Headmaster at my school pointed out that I could do well that I thought to apply. But there was no cost then. I don’t think there is enough understanding communicated by the government that there will be no direct cost for students, it will all be paid after graduates will be earning over £21,000 a year. But it was important there was no cost at the time, there was no way I could’ve gone to uni otherwise.’
Finally, I put the question to him:
‘Looking back to 1974 before when you were 18 and applying to University, if you had £9,000 to spend on anything, what would you have spent it on?’
‘Travel’ he replies.
‘I would’ve been more ambitious where I wanted to go, maybe go to Europe, but I definitely would have travelled.’
Southampton University Student’s Union President Billy Fitzjohn has said in a statement, ‘Union Officers will continue to lobby local MPs and Government to think again about these Higher Education proposals, whilst ensuring that the University also engages with Government to lobby for a healthy funding regime for the Higher Education sector.
‘SUSU strongly opposes any rise in tuition fees. We are exceptionally disappointed that the coalition Government’s radical proposals to Higher Education have withdrawn the majority of public funding from our Universities, leading to massive funding gaps for institutions across the country.’
A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: ‘No university can know for certain yet what it will charge from autumn 2012. Each university will need to show how they meet tough new conditions in an approved access agreement if it wants to charge more than £6,000.’