The ferocity of the debate over tuition fees in England has lessened markedly since it became clear that the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 has not caused large numbers of poorer students to turn their backs on higher education.
Last week’s Ucas figures, which revealed another rise in applications for 2015-16, will be seen as further evidence that those fears were unfounded (although the conversion of maintenance grants into loans, announced in the spending review, may yet have an impact).
So are we to conclude that charging fees of £9,000 a year – among the highest in the world – is the right policy, provided that an income-contingent loan scheme is in place?
Not necessarily. Just because the student market will bear high fees does not mean that it should.
In our lead feature this week, which investigates whether there is a “right” split between public and private contributions to tuition costs, Bruce Chapman, the Australian architect of income-contingent loans, voices the widely held belief that since higher education provides both private and social benefits, the cost should be split between individuals and taxpayers. But, he says, “beyond that, we don’t know what the right subsidy should be, and no empirical work can resolve this”.
Nor is England’s high-fee regime necessarily set in stone (any more than Scotland’s free tuition policy is, even if it is carved into a boulder at Heriot-Watt University). While the Labour Party’s supposedly youth-friendly pre-election pledge to lower fees to £6,000 “clearly didn’t win universal support” – as former shadow chancellor Ed Balls put it in a recent interview with Times Higher Education – current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tells us in an interview this week that he is personally committed to abolishing fees entirely (although whether he is able to turn that into official Labour policy remains to be seen). Meanwhile, in the US, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has made similar noises, and recent reversals in countries such as Chile and Germany demonstrate that, unlike privatisation in general, the privatisation of higher education costs is not irreversible.
For his part, universities and science minister Jo Johnson said in a recent Commons debate that “it is unfair on people who do not go to university to pay for the educations of those who, in their lifetimes, will go on to earn considerably more [than them]”.
It is also worth noting that, as University of Oxford professor and social commentator Danny Dorling pointed out in THE last week, while university expansion means participation is widening, the gap between the likelihood of poor and rich children going to university is growing even faster.
That, arguably, only strengthens the argument that the poor should not have to bear too much of the cost via general taxation (even if, in reality, tax receipts from this group are small).
But the danger of this line of thinking is that it neglects the social and economic benefits of higher education – highlighted in our feature – from which everyone benefits. And while high fees may be politically tenable, it remains a moot point whether it makes economic or moral sense to send 45 per cent of the population into the world of precarious work, sky-high mortgages and enormous childcare costs with tens of thousands of pounds of debt around their necks.