Former education secretary Justine Greening believes that the model she explored in government of funding English universities through a graduate contribution plus a “skills levy” on employers could be taken up by the next prime minister, as it is “inconceivable” that he would adopt the Augar review plans.
Ms Greening, who exited government in January 2018 as Theresa May pushed through the review, told Times Higher Education of her plan, which would abolish the system of tuition fee price tags and loans: “I suspect it’s exactly how we’ll end up reforming the system. In fact, I think it’s probably the only higher education bill that could get through Parliament.”
Ms Greening said that she would hold a round table meeting with universities and Conservative colleagues in the coming weeks “to look at the Augar review and to look at some of these other ideas…that we think can perhaps be stronger ways to reform the system”.
The Augar review’s recommendations on changes to the repayment system were “hugely regressive” in increasing the burden on low- and middle-earning graduates, while lowering it for those on higher incomes, Ms Greening said.
“I find it inconceivable that any future Conservative government that cares about…progressive funding of higher education and social mobility could take that kind of proposal forward,” she added.
Alongside former universities minister Jo Johnson, Ms Greening has been a vocal opponent of the review’s recommendations on higher education funding, which would keep in place the system of fees and loans. The review recommends that the fee cap be lowered from £9,250 a year to £7,500, with the Treasury providing replacement funding so that the average unit of resource remains unchanged, but with a shift towards high-cost subjects or those with greater “social and economic value”.
If the next government were to bring the Augar recommendations on tuition fees to Parliament, would Ms Greening rally opposition against the plans among Tory colleagues?
“I think many Conservative MPs were unhappy with the Augar review proposals on higher education and felt they [the recommendations] were against promoting social mobility and would vote against seeing them taken through the House of Commons,” Ms Greening said.
But she added: “I don’t think it will get to that stage [a Commons vote], because I don’t think the Augar review will be taken forward. Which is the other issue with it: you waste a year and a half, and we haven’t had the government’s response to Augar. I’m afraid politics is moving faster than a review like Augar was able to cope with.”
As education secretary she had “recognised there was an inherent fragility to the student finance system” supporting fees and loans given the low loan repayment rates, and that the government “couldn’t continue to raise fees year on year as a strategy” because there would “come a time when the level of debt young people were taking on…would genuinely put them off going”, Ms Greening said.
Her plan to create a system that was “more stable for the future” was “not per se a graduate tax”, but more akin to a “time-limited National Insurance” contribution, she said.
This graduate contribution would go into a “higher education fund”, she added. “I was interested in looking at whether businesses could contribute to that fund as well.” This employer contribution could come from “an overall skills levy that looked at both apprenticeships and degree-level investment,” Ms Greening continued.
The proposal, she said, was “my idea that I came up with, rather than one from the officials”. She asked Department for Education officials to “come back and tell me why it was a really bad idea – so I asked them to break it, basically”. By Christmas 2017, those officials had “come back to [tell] me that fundamentally it could work”, while “Treasury had had an initial look at it and was also open to it as a route forward”, Ms Greening said.
She argued that although the Augar review was not a deliberate effort by No 10 to kill off her own proposals, it nevertheless meant that “nascent policy reforms that could have been not only progressive, but allowed a better chance to address value for money in the sector and potentially for future millions of graduates lifted a burden of worry on debt…were not looked at by No 10 because they were myopically concerned about kicking off this review”.
Print headline: Graduate levy plan ‘only’ way to reform funding
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