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Greg Clark, the new Universities Minister, has ruled out a rise in the £9,000 tuition fee telling vice chancellors they have enough money to provide courses.
He was "not persuaded" by the argument that the fee needed to rise to take account of increased costs. "The £9,000 covers the cost of education in most courses and most institutions and there are arrangements to support high cost courses," he said.
Mr Clark, the keynote speaker at the annual conference of Universities UK in Leeds, dismissed warnings that the Government would be unable to recoup the cost of student loans saying the system had been set up to be sustainable in the long term. In a press conference after his speech, he told journalists: "I don't think it makes sense to keep pulling up the plant by the roots every time there is a new survey of graduate earnings."
The new higher education funding system was sustainable and the envy of other countries, as demonstrated in the OECD's latest Education at a Glance report (See HEi-know Briefing Report 192), he said. Quoting Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's Director for Education and Skills, he said the UK is seen as "the first European country that established a sustainable approach to HE funding".
His remarks followed a warning from Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, the UUK President, that inflation was undermining the £9,000 a year undergraduate tuition fee and forcing universities to dig into their cash reserves.
"We are going to have to have something like RPI indexing of the fees. We are not awash with cash," hesaid.
Earlier the Minister told the conference that the early indications were that around half the 30,000 extra undergraduate places provided by the Government for 2014-15 had been taken up, in line with his department's predictions.
"The expectation always was that it would be 15,000 but 30,000 was the cap to make sure we didn'tbust the budget," he said.
Next year, when the cap on the number of undergraduates universities can recruit is fully lifted " the most popular and successful institutions can choose to grow," he said.
Expansion of student numbers was necessary to tackle some of the "shocking disparities" of the participation in higher education between different socio-economic groups.
"In Ruislip 65 per cent of young people go into higher education. But in my home town of Middlesbrough just 26 per cent of young people make it to university. And in Nottingham North only 16 per cent do. Let me be clear. As long as four times as many children get to university from suburban London as from the estates ofNottingham I refuse to believe that the pool of ability is close to being exhausted," he said.
Postgraduate study was becoming " the new frontier in the battle to widen access" and though he didn't yet have a solution, he was working to find ways of making postgraduate education available to all those who could benefit from it.
In his address, Professor Snowden, the Vice-Chancellor of Surrey University, called for a 10-year plan to increase public investment in research and for international students to be removed from net migration figures because of the strong adverse perception it was causing in countries sending students to the UK.
In the run up to the general election UUK will be campaigning on these issues plus student funding, highlighting the need to develop a sustainable student funding system for England, but with relevance for the whole of the UK, he said.
"We are seeking cross-party consensus for a long-term and sustainable system of funding that will provide stability for the sector, drive social mobility and produce the skilled graduates the economy needs," he said.
On the international front, Mr Clark announced the launch of a Go International website, designed to provide more for UK students interested in studying and working abroad.
He dismissed suggestions that the UK's toughened student visa regime was damaging its reputation abroad as a country that welcomed overseas students, and side-stepped a question over whether he felt students should be taken out of the government's net migration figures. Pointing to most recent figures showing a 4.6 cent rise in the number of overseas students recruited by UK universities, he said the important message to broadcast was that there is no cap on international recruitment in the UK.
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