Fees in Wales will rise to £9,250 in September. Except where they won’t

Universities in Wales have been lobbying for, at the very least, an increase in the maximum permitted undergraduate fee from £9,000 to England’s £9,250 for some time.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

And back in February, they were given that increase – albeit with a cut to the recurrent grant allocatable by HEFCW of £8m.

But as ever, things aren’t quite that simple.

Aberystwyth says that it will implement this change to fees for “applicable students” for the 2024/25 academic year, where the “applicable students” are UK domiciled full-time students and Irish nationals who are in all years of undergraduate study at Aberystwyth University.

Bangor says its fees for September 2024 will be £9,000, Swansea doesn’t seem to be saying for 2024 anything yet (but has a smattering of other pages saying £9,000), and nor does Cardiff (although it also is saying £9k on some course pages).

Wrexham is saying £9,000 (although adds that fees are “subject to changes in government policy”), UWTSD is saying £9k unambiguously, Cardiff Met says £9,000, and South Wales says £9k and that that “will remain at £9,000 a year for the duration of their course”.

The problem here is when (and if) the fee can go up.

First of all, you need to have told new students that the fee will be £9,250. And plenty of said new students have already had an offer or may be relying on information already supplied.

Then, if you want to apply the increase to students already enrolled, you need to have given yourself the power to increase it in your Ts and Cs. And those Ts and Cs need to be legally sound and compliant with consumer protection law.

That’s complicated by all sorts of factors.

The Competition and Markets Authority’s advice on consumer protection law for UK higher education providers says that it is important that students know how much their course is likely to cost in total to allow them fully to assess their options and to plan better financially.

Before students apply, the CMA says they should be able to foresee and understand, on the basis of clear, intelligible criteria, how much the total fees will be for the course, as well as the circumstances and the degree to which fees might be increased.

In its view, a term that provides for fee increases may be less likely to be open to legal challenge for potential unfairness if clear, accurate, transparent information about potential fee increases is actively drawn to a student’s attention up front alongside information about the course fees generally, so they can foresee when entering the contract whether and how fees could change.

It’s also likely to be less open to legal challenge if the term sets out limited circumstances and valid reasons why fees might increase – for example, the provider sets out its ability to increase fees in line with inflation to reflect increased costs of delivering the course – and increases are linked to an objective verifiable index, such as the Retail Prices Index for inflationary rises, which it says would give an objective, clear framework for students to foresee when the fees would be expected to change.

In addition, the method of calculating any variation should be clearly explained so students can foresee how the increase would affect them in practice.

That all presents a bit of a problem. Some universities in Wales have been saying things like “the Welsh Government may allow inflationary increases”, but the Welsh government’s current measure of inflation – which it is applying to the maximum fee for Master’s students in 2024/25 – is 0.9 per cent, a lot lower than the 2.7 per cent that the £250 uplift on the max UG fee represents.

It’s hard to find any Welsh university that sets out which measure of inflation it will use, and when that measure will be taken – and given the volatility in recent years, that matters.

Some simply say that “fees may rise in line with the amount set by the Welsh Government”, but the WG doesn’t set a fee – it sets a maximum fee. Even those that say they’ll charge the maximum set by the WG could be argued to be not offering the clarity to students upfront that CMA says the law demands.

Complicating all of this is what the CMA has said about a consultation on prohibiting inflation-linked telecoms price rises. That consultation was launched last year following Ofcom’s concern that a number of telecoms companies’ contract terms allowed for an annual rise in in-contract payments linked to future inflation, often plus an additional percentage.

Ofcom argued that these “inflation-linked price variation clauses” not only make it difficult for consumers to know with any certainty what they will be paying through the duration of a contract, but also require customers to:

…assume the risk and burden of financial uncertainty from inflation with tangible impacts on their ability to manage costs.

You might be thinking “but students get a loan for these fees”, but not everyone gets a loan – and plenty of providers (both in Wales and the rest of the UK) also say something similar about international UG fees.

Ofcom proposed a ban on telecoms companies including inflation-linked price rises in their contracts, and also proposed a ban on any price rises set out in percentage terms in contracts – instead, they are saying that where telecom companies contracts allow for a mid-contract price increase, the amount must be set out upfront, in pounds and pence.

The CMA’s response indicates that it agrees with Ofcom that:

…the existing practice of inflation-linked price variation terms plus an additional percentage is likely to cause consumer harm.

…and it notes the imposition of what it calls an “unfair financial risk” on consumers.

Its legal justification is set out in part in another consultation response to the Advertising Standards Authority on new guidance on how to present information about mid-contract price rises in ads for broadband and mobile services.

Even if all of that was OK, there’s also the Fee and Access Plan regime in Wales – where the guidance says that the relevant fee and access plan is supposed to:

…inform any prospective student, before the student commits to undertaking a course, of the aggregate amount of fees that the institution will charge for the completion of the course.

…and also has a section that invites Welsh universities to “publicly commit” to abide by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidelines for higher education.

The tricky problem for universities in Wales is that in 2022 they were allowed to set out Fee and Access Plans covering 2023/24 and 2024/25 – and some indicated that fees would be £9,000 throughout that period.

This does all appear to mean that some universities in Wales will be applying a £9,250 fee for all of their undergraduates from this September, some to new UGs from this September, some only to new UGs from September 2025, and some only to new UGs from 2026.

Some will apply an increase from £9,000 to £9,250 in a student’s second year and reserve the right to increase said fee further – others won’t. Or think they can’t.

And as far as we can see, neither HEFCW nor the CMA are offering any direct clarity on what a university can or can’t do, and which terms would be likely seen by CMA as unfair and so subject to enforcement.

Notwithstanding that there are other HE providers in Wales, it’s hardly as if Wales is a huge sector that would mitigate against the CMA lifting a finger to intervene and offer clarity.

Although if it did – particularly given the way in which it seems to be arguing the mobile phone and broadband issues – it could well cause some chaos to international UG (and some PT PG) fees around the rest of the UK.

Universities in Wales will be likely to be hoping that any inability to raise fees for some or all of their UGs from September will be taken into account by the Welsh Government and HEFCW/CTER in terms of that countervailing cut. Best of luck with that.

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