Tuition fees “may have to rise again,” according to the vice chancellor of the University of Exeter in a debate hosted by the university's debating society against the President of the NUS last night.
Remarkably, the motion 'This House Believes Tuition Fees Should Not Increase' was defeated by the student audience, who had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the statement before hearing the two speakers.
In 2010, the coalition government's tripling of the cap on university fees was met with outrage by protesting students across the country.
But to the astonishment of many, Sir Steve Smith, formerly a distinguished professor of international relations, managed to convince the crowd that tuition fees would need to increase further at some point.
Now earning nearly £300,000 salary, Exeter's vice-chancellor suggested that “his priority” was to increase the university's standards.
An accomplished orator, the 62-year-old went on to clarify his defense of any rise as apparently being pragmatic: “whatever my moral position, I believe there will have to be an increase,” he said.
“My personal preference would be for income tax to pay for university fees [but] it is unrealistic to hope for the public to pay.”
Smith's argument centred around the need for increased funding in the coming years, as his suggestion that fees “will have to increase in the next 1,000 years,” drew chuckles from the crowd.
Pearce, the first NUS leader not to go to university, agreed that funding was an issue but stressed a “clever public accounting trick” on the part of the government that she claimed disingenuously showed the policy to be lowering the national deficit, when, she said, it was in fact it was increasing it.
Her comments come after a report this month claimed that £200 billion worth of student debt could cripple state finances in 30 years time, when current students' remaining debt will be written off - leading to fears that conditions could be changed to make them pay more.
She also highlighted the need for students to be given value for money at university, but did not reignite the idea of abolishing fees.
Students at Exeter's infamous debating society are asked to vote 'on the merits of the arguments they have heard' – not necessarily according to their own beliefs – which could account for the surprising result.
The two also discussed the issue of vice chancellor pay, with Pearce labelling huge increases in salaries as “disgraceful” amidst real term pay cuts for ordinary staff.
Smith, meanwhile, highlighted that he had declined pay rises in three of the last five years and answered “no” when asked whether lecturers' recent industrial action was justified.