My Lords, we on these Benches support the case put so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and we much regret that he is stepping down from his Front-Bench role. We seem to have had to work together a lot in recent days, and it has always been a great pleasure to do so.
This increase in tuition fees is a significant further step towards full marketisation of the UK higher education sector, which threatens the accessibility and reputation of this vital sector. Allowing some universities with higher teaching ratings to charge higher fees means that students will increasingly have to weigh the opportunity presented by a particular course against the fee being charged. In fact, such a step could simply encourage the development of a two-tier university system whereby richer students go to higher-rated universities while the most disadvantaged students go to the lower-rated universities or not at all.
We on these Benches totally reject the idea of linking fees to teaching excellence framework gradings, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, set out. They are an untried and untested form of assessment which should not be used to determine fees. There appears to be no correlation between increased fees and improved teaching quality. The National Union of Students points out that:
“Since tuition fees were trebled in 2012, there is no evidence to suggest that there was a consequential improvement in teaching quality. There has been no change in student satisfaction with the teaching on their course, while institutions have instead been shown to spend additional income from the fees rise on increased marketing materials, rather than on efforts to improve course quality”.
Doubtless some universities have used the fees to improve quality, but there is no guarantee that that is what the fees are there to do.
We have argued for many years that there is a serious lack of attention to teaching quality in universities. The emphasis has been heavily weighted to research for prestige, funding and career promotions, and we welcome the aims in the Higher Education and Research Bill to redress the balance, but we do not believe the way to solve this is through linking teaching quality to fees.
These changes come on top of other deeply damaging changes to student finance. First, there was the abolition of maintenance grants for lower-income students, which makes these regulations all the more damaging. Getting rid of grants while increasing the cost of university education may put lower-income students off attending higher-performing universities. Secondly, the retrospective change in loan conditions to freeze the repayment threshold for tuition fees at £21,000 breaks the deal done with students by the coalition and changes the terms for many students, meaning paying back from a lower starting point.
These measures will in no way encourage diversity or open access to mature or part-time students, nor encourage lifelong learning. We acknowledge the welcome increase to £833 million for the Director of Fair Access to improve student success for the more disadvantaged, but that is not going to solve the problem. Social mobility is simply not good enough. These measures will do nothing to improve opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We join in the regrets.