The chief executive of the Russell Group has warned that a cut to tuition fees in England could leave members of the mission group more than £800 million out of pocket.
The government’s review of post-18 education, which is due to report next month, is expected to include proposals to reduce the tuition fee cap from £9,250 to between £6,500 and £7,500, potentially with a top-up fee for science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. The review is also said to be considering blocking students with poor A-level grades from accessing student loans, in effect barring them from university study.
Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group chief executive, told an event hosted by the thinktank Politeia that if the leaked proposals were implemented, “this is setting up a real, real problem for UK higher education”.
According to the mission group’s own calculations, a “worst-case scenario” in which fees are cut to £6,500 across the board and no replacement funding is provided would result in a loss of income totalling £860 million a year for its 20 English members. This is “one of my biggest worries”, Dr Bradshaw said, because it will “throw the whole system up in the air”.
If fees are capped at £7,500, under what Dr Bradshaw termed “the best-case scenario”, “that is a loss of around £500 million per year”.
“We’re facing Brexit; we have to be more competitive, we have to be able to get out there and compete internationally,” Dr Bradshaw said. “I see a review going on at the moment that I fear ends down a route with caps on aspiration for young people and real damage being done at just the time when we need it most.”
At the same event, panelists debated the relative merits and consequences of alternative funding models proposed for reshaping the higher education system.
Lord Willetts, who oversaw the creation of the £9,500 fees system when he was universities minister, said that the “obvious settlement” would be “to lower the student loans repayment threshold and remove the interest rate on loan repayments”, which he said would help to relieve graduates of years of debt at no consequence to university purses.
Replacing loans with a form of “graduate tax”, under which all graduates earning above £25,000 would pay a 9 per cent levy on income tax, would only push talent abroad, he said.
Dr Bradshaw added that barring students with Ds or Es at A level from taking out loans altogether would have “dangerous consequences [potentially] reversing the social mobility engine”.