Income-contingent student loans should be replaced in England by a system of personal learning accounts that citizens can draw on throughout their lifetime, according to an influential education expert.
Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, suggested that every adult should be given a set sum to spend on any form of tertiary education at any age.
“We need to get away from a system that is dominated by the view that you must take out a three-year, full-time loan,” she said, adding that the inability to “bank” student loans for use later in life coupled with extremely high tertiary education participation rates mean that most young people feel they have “no choice but to go to university”.
The government should “try to move the allocation of resources to citizens and give them a lifetime entitlement that is truly universal”, Lady Wolf suggested.
She said that the current funding system also makes it “hard to maintain vocational and technical alternatives” to university.
“It becomes impossible to maintain for anybody, except a very small proportion of the population, any route that is not seen as ultimately giving you the possibility of going in to higher education,” she said.
Lady Wolf was speaking in conversation with Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London, at an event organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Birkbeck to commemorate the life of Ruth Thompson, who was director of higher education at what was then the Department for Education and Skills between 2003 and 2006.
Lady Wolf also questioned what she described as the Conservative government’s “conviction” that Labour’s surge in this year’s general election was a result of its policy to abolish tuition fees. There “isn’t any evidence” that the two were linked, she said.
However, she suggested that it was unlikely that the Conservatives would look to scrap fees altogether.
“The government likes setting fees – it likes the power, it likes the prospect of setting them ever more finely,” she said. “My experience with governments is that they don’t like giving up power.”
Instead, Lady Wolf said, the government would likely continue to make small adjustments to the current system.
“My worry is that you’ll…have constant chipping away [of the current system], which means that you don’t actually tackle the system properly,” she said.
The academics also discussed the large drop in the number of new part-time students, with Professor Callender suggesting that the decline could lead eventually to the demise of the Open University.
The Birkbeck professor said that she had recently been asked to give evidence to the House of Commons Treasury Committee and had suggested to an adviser to the committee that she speak about part-time students, only to hear him admit that he “didn’t realise it was an issue”.
“There is a real lack of political will” to address the fall in part-time students, Professor Callender said. “Nobody seriously cares. If we wait long enough, we will see the end of the OU.”