A few things stand out from Theresa May’s announcement of a “major review” of higher education funding today.
- This review appears to be driven by the PM and No 10. Department for Education ministers Jo Johnson and Justine Greening steadfastly defended the status quo as a boost to social mobility at the Tory conference. May’s announcement seems to pull the rug from under them with some force.
- Radical options such as forcing down fee caps at some universities based on their graduate earnings (Longitudinal Education Outcomes figures) have been briefed to the national press as being on the table for some weeks. Those sources got it right when they said that there would be a review.
- The review is driven by a PM who is notably hostile to the university sector and its current arrangements in many ways. As home secretary, she infamously declared “I don’t care what the university lobbyists say”. We can infer some significant things about the view that May is likely to have of universities, not just from the last Tory manifesto (which pledged a review of tertiary funding, quite clearly as a way to shifting money from higher education to technical and further education), but from Nick Timothy’s recent criticisms of the sector in his Daily Telegraph column. May’s former adviser (who wrote the manifesto and with whom she is reported to still be in regular contact) described the student loans system as a “Ponzi scheme” in that article, questioned the economic benefits of higher education and lamented students going to “the wrong institutions”. May was channelling Timothy’s article in her speech when she said that “today, young people take on a huge amount of debt to do so [go to university] and if we are honest, some don’t know what they get from it in return”. May, as shadow education secretary, also told Times Higher Education in 2000 that the polytechnics had “lost their way” since becoming universities. May and Timothy have clear ideas about which are the “right” universities and courses, and which are the “wrong” ones. There is a view among large sections of the Conservative party that “too many people go to university”.
- The review has been announced at just about the worst possible time imaginable for universities in terms of their standing with the media and thus (possibly) with sections of the general public. Andrew Adonis has ensured that universities are flayed in the national press on a near-daily basis over vice-chancellors’ pay and their supposedly profligate spending.
- The government has just committed to spending £2.3 billion a year on raising the loan repayment threshold (that’s the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate on costs, which it puts at a 40 per cent increase in taxpayer support for higher education). Senior sector figures question whether that means the government will seek cuts elsewhere in HE spending.
- The question of whether the “major review” is an external one or an internal government process is crucial. “Major review” seems to lean towards an external review. If that is what it is to be, the choice of chair and terms of reference are vital questions. Would an external review be a comprehensive piece of work like the Dearing review? Or a quick-and-dirty political fix like the Browne review?
- Other key questions to throw into the mix are whether an element of public funding returns, whether uncapped student numbers continue, May’s prioritisation of technical education, the need to look at the future of part-time study and the admiring glances that many in England throw at Wales’ new system offering maintenance support of up to £8,100 a year (Janet Beer, the new UUK president, told THE this could be a model for England).
- Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees has been gold for him and for Labour. It helped win him the Labour leadership, helped deliver big turnouts among younger voters in some key seats at the general election, and now has the Tories panicking at the sound of gunfire by pledging a major review of funding. Vice-chancellors might soon look on Labour’s policy rather more kindly. It is, after all, pledging to maintain their current funding. Which by the time May’s review is done, may look a rather generous offer.
John Morgan is politics reporter and deputy news editor at Times Higher Education.
Access all the latest HE news from the Conservative party conference