Going for broke? Government must look again at tuition fee policy

Shadow HE minister Gordon Marsden believes that the current approach to tuition fees could end up punishing not only students, but whole communities

July 7, 2017
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The recent teaching excellence framework gradings for higher education (done under the ludicrous gold/silver/bronze system) – possibly dreamed up by a harassed Department for Education official in post-Olympic euphoria last September – have produced prizes for some and frustration for others.

But they have also put the spotlight firmly back on the argument about how the results might be used by ministers as a Trojan Horse to remove the cap on tuition fees and have reopened the debate about the adequacy of the TEF’s metrics and framework.

Throughout the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill (now Act), I and my colleagues in both Houses of Parliament underlined the sector-wide concerns that the metrics chosen were proxies – fundamentally unsuitable to measure teaching quality. That is why the wide-ranging independent review that we subsequently secured from the government in the wash-up period is going to be so important. The whole of the TEF will be under review, and no link to tuition fees can take place before it reports.

What this episode has exposed further is the government’s failure to build bridges instead of barriers. The level of debt of UK students is now higher than ever, with potentially damaging consequences for social mobility and expanding skills and productivity in a post-Brexit Britain.

In most institutions, tuition fees will rise from £9,000 to £9,250 a year – further increasing the burden on students. All increases to tuition fees are now subject to affirmative action and a debate in Parliament (thanks again to a concession that Labour won from the government).

This will become increasingly important as ministers try to push ahead with plans to use the TEF to increase fees and remove the cap.

However, the general election meant that despite our objecting to the regulations increasing fees, there was no opportunity for parliamentary debate or scrutiny. The mechanism for linking student fee increases based on rises in the retail price index has become even more toxic with the 10-fold increase in inflation (from 0.3 to 2.7 per cent) since April 2016. That is why it is crucial to have a debate about this on the floor of the Commons before the summer recess.

The election period showed how higher education in particular was a major factor in the public’s consideration of how they might vote. The engagement of young people – and not just current students – in politics is on the rise. It was groundbreaking because this was now seen as a key issue – not just for students, but an intergenerational one for families. The public good of education was put back on the political agenda.

Vice-chancellors and senior management teams need to take this changing situation very seriously, as I said at the recent Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards ceremony in London. Commentators in the outside world (and young people and adult students) say that we now have a fee regime that is more stringent and potentially more off-putting to would-be students than any other in the Western world.

The reason that Labour connected well in the general election with students and their families on this is that we had an inclusive, coherent narrative. Whether we were talking about adult learning, college learning (and remember that more than 10 per cent of higher education is now delivered at further education colleges) or traditional cohorts of young people going into higher education – at every point we wanted to lift the barriers, lift the financial burdens and make this a step change for social mobility and the skills that we need.

The Conservatives didn’t do that. They stuck to an outdated market-driven, end-of-the-line version of Thatcherism – and they were duly punished for it.

And now evidence suggests that their higher education policies are becoming both socially and economically destructive. The latest figures published by the Office for Fair Access have shown a worrying increase in the number of disadvantaged young students dropping out of university after the first year of their course. In 2014-15, 8.8 per cent of young, full-time, disadvantaged undergraduates were in that category. It underlined our argument throughout the passage of the Higher Education Bill that the government’s continued drive to push more debt on to students would end up being detrimental to social mobility.

The government’s agenda on higher education has progressively hit students harder and harder. Since 2012, a triple whammy for students has been created by scrapping maintenance grants for loans, freezing the student loan threshold and removing NHS bursaries.

This week the Institute for Fiscal Studies has sounded further alarm bells about the government’s direction of travel. It says that “replacing maintenance grants with loans results in students from low-income families graduating with the highest debt levels, in excess of £57,000. Changes since 2012 have increased the repayment of almost all graduates, increasing the burden of student loans the most for low and middle earners – driven largely by the freezing of the repayment threshold.”

If this is the situation today, what is it likely to be in the next two years of uncertainty over Brexit and our economic performance? And with higher inflation tightening the screws on students and graduates alike? Theresa May’s ministers urgently need to look again at their planned existing tuition fee rises, lifting the indefensible retrospective freeze on raising the repayment threshold, and reducing the debt burden on students by bringing back maintenance grants instead of loans.

If they fail to do this, the bells will toll not just for our universities but for dozens of local economies and areas across England. They and tens of thousands of students and graduates will suffer from the consequences of an addiction to market models now hopelessly out of date and out of touch. 

Gordon Marsden is shadow minister for higher and further education and skills.

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