Labour plans to cut university tuition fees will hurt the poor, according to the vice-chancellor of Sussex University.
Michael Farthing spoke out as the party prepares to announce a policy of cutting the maximum tuition fee from £9,000 a year to £6,000.
Professor Farthing said that the proposal overlooks the fact that tuition fees are already capped at £6,000 unless a university can show how it is attracting and supporting students from poorer backgrounds.
If implemented, the proposal would, he said, reverse social mobility and cut the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Professor Farthing said: ““The maximum tuition fee that we can charge is already £6000 unless we come up with a fully costed access agreement about how we will invest and work to attract students from under-represented groups.
“About half of our new undergraduates here at Sussex are now first-generation scholars, with no family background of university education or from lower income backgrounds.”
Universities were permitted to charge £9,000 a year from 2012. The policy hit support for the Liberal Democrats as they backed the move, having pledge to oppose a rise at the 2010 general election.
But universities were only allowed to charge £9,000 if they registered a detailed “access agreement” with the Office of Fair Access. So far 162 universities and colleges have done so.
By 2017-18 universities plan to spend more than £700 million a year attracting and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds in exchange for permission to charge the higher tuition fees.
Professor Farthing said: “These extra fees are all about social mobility. The stated government policy aim is that eventually all students who are bright enough and who wish to attend will have an equal opportunity to come to university.
“It would be reckless for any head of a higher education institution to do anything but challenge a proposal which would appear to have such lasting damage on widening participation and social mobility.”
Sussex University said that it was spending more than many other universities trying to attract and retain students who were considered part of the government’s “widening participation” agenda.
In 2015-16 Sussex plans to spend more than 34 per cent of its additional fee income against a sector average of 25 per cent.
The money goes on non-repayable bursaries for first-generation scholars and on a wide range of outreach programmes to local schools in Sussex and in deprived areas of London.
The Sussex Access Agreement shows that the university will spend a total of £8.2million in 2015-16 on “widening participation” initiatives.
The gap between application numbers from students from poor backgrounds and their richer peers is at a record low this year.
Sussex University said that the trend showed a steady shrinking of the gap since the higher fees were introduced.
Young people from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in England are now 72 per cent more likely to apply to higher education in 2015 than they were nine years ago, according to the latest figures from UCAS (the University and College Admissions Service).
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