This week, Theresa May set out an ambition to lower university tuition fees. This announcement could easily be seen as a promise to reduce the cost of going to university and make higher education more accessible. However, for many future students this simply could not be further from the truth.
The headline proposal to reduce tuition fees hides a much more concerning suggestion to raise the costs of higher education for many graduates and to restrict student numbers. These proposals, set out by the panel led by Philip Augar, do not yet represent government policy and may never come to fruition. However, their potential consequences are worrying and must be thoroughly and properly scrutinised.
Under the proposals the prime minister refers to, student loans will no longer be written off after 30 years. Instead, many graduates will be paying off their loan for up to 40 years. This would unfairly penalise those graduates who choose to give back to society, entering professions where salary is not a driver, such as our nurses, social workers and teachers. These graduates will be forced to pay back their loans until they are well into their sixties, contributing more to the cost of their university education than they do under the current system. For anyone to suggest that extending the loan repayment period will make higher education more affordable to disadvantaged students and help social mobility is a complete con.
To make matters worse, these students will be paying more for what is likely to be a worse university experience. If tuition fees are reduced, the risk is high that income from fees will not be replaced by public grants. Higher education has been (and always will be) behind other priorities for increased state spending – schools, housing, the NHS – and understandably so. In practice, reducing tuition fees will therefore lead to universities having less to spend on student learning, support and facilities.
We owe future generations honesty regarding the consequences of lower tuition fees. Before fees, during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, universities persistently faced funding crises. By 2005, the resource for educating each student was a third of what it had been in 1965. The consequences of this were plain for all to see – dilapidated buildings, overcrowded lectures and a lack of focus on the student experience because of the relentless hand-to-mouth reality of making ends meet with ever-diminishing budgets. We risk returning to this reality if university funding is stripped away once more, damaging the immeasurable and transformative benefits of universities for students, staff and local communities.
When one delves even deeper into the details of the panel’s report, there are further worrying recommendations. These include a recommendation to remove access to student loans to fund foundation year study. The University of Bedfordshire was one of the first universities to offer an innovative foundation year. Our approach offered a popular alternative pathway into higher education, which continues to achieve very high success and progression rates. Removing funding for foundation years would be deeply regressive and a real kick in the teeth for those institutions who have been most innovative and successful in supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. And more importantly it would restrict student choice.
Decisions about the future of our world-renowned higher education system must be driven by evidence and reason, rather than politics. We do not have a huge, unaffordable debt burden for graduates. Rather we have an affordable, progressive, post-graduation repayment system, where the beneficiaries of a university education – still less than half the population – pay back a proportion of the cost of the benefit that they have received.
Instead of focussing on regressive policies that reduce university funding and restrict access to higher education, it is time for a more positive, bolder vision for the future. This vision must focus on driving excellence in education and supporting those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Bill Rammell is vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and was the UK’s minister for higher education from 2005 to 2008.