Tuition fees “may have to rise” above £9,000 in the future, according to a Conservative MP and member of the No 10 policy advisory board.
Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Margot James also admitted that the coalition government’s funding changes were “dangerously close” to the point at which they became more expensive than the old system, and that asking graduates to repay their loans faster could be an option.
Ms James - a 2013 appointee to the policy board that feeds ideas into the No 10 Policy Unit - also said she “regretted” the government’s scrapping of the post-study work visa for overseas students.
Meanwhile, David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, told another fringe meeting that there had been “low-level warfare” between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the issue of overseas students.
Ms James, who is a governor of the London School of Economics, referred to a 2010 remark by Mr Willetts that the charging of £9,000 fees would be exceptional when she spoke at an event hosted by the Policy Exchange thinktank.
“I did slightly cringe when I heard David Willetts say that this wouldn’t be automatic, that a lot of universities might choose less,” she told the meeting. “The reason being because the actual cost of providing higher education at this level exceeds £9,000 for most courses in most universities.
“And if we want to achieve that goal of maintaining the standard and the ranking of our universities, we’re going to have to possibly accept that fees in the future may even have to rise.”
Ms James referred to the £16,000 figure - the University of Oxford’s estimate of the real cost of educating its undergraduates - when asked by Times Higher Education after the meeting if fees may have to rise.
“There’s no chance of seeing a reduction in fees, put it that way,” she said. “There are other ways that you could improve the situation. We talked a little bit [in the meeting] about repayment rates, we talked about the threshold at which students repay their loan. There are changes that could be made there.
“At the moment, I don’t foresee any changes on the horizon. But when you’ve got a system where universities get £9,000 per year for something that costs roughly £16,000, that is an issue that does need resolving.”
Responding to a question at the meeting, Ms James said there was a point at which the £9,000 student loans system would become more expensive than the old. “We are running it dangerously close,” she said.
She also told the fringe event, which was chaired by THE editor John Gill: “I regretted the changes to the work-study visa system that we introduced at the beginning of the government. But they have been, to a degree, softened.”
Mr Willetts said at a separate fringe meeting on overseas students, hosted by Universities UK and the Tory modernising group Bright Blue: “I’m not going through an account of four years of low-level warfare between BIS and the Home Office on this issue.”
He also appeared to dissent from the slogan, frequently used by Home Office ministers, that the UK must attract the “brightest and the best” overseas students.
“They don’t have to be the brightest and the best,” Mr Willetts said. “They are people we are educating, and then they go back home.”
King’s crown for Two Brains? Willetts is in demand
David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, could be in line to become a visiting professor of political science at King’s College London, Times Higher Education understands.
While the former minister is highly regarded by many in the sector, his key role in the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 could make him a controversial appointment in the eyes of some students and staff at King’s.
It is thought that King’s is keen to offer him a position, but the appointment is yet to be finalised.
Mr Willetts had previously told THE that he would like to write a book about higher education following his departure from office in this year’s ministerial reshuffle.
Shortly before the reshuffle, he made the shortlist to become the UK’s next European Union commissioner, but ultimately lost out when Prime Minister David Cameron opted for Lord Hill of Oareford.