Cutting university tuition fees in England would cause “profound” and “needless harm” to students, institutions and the economy, the head of the Confederation of British Industry will warn today.
In a speech in Cambridge on 28 February, Carolyn Fairbairn, the organisation’s director general, will call on the government to maintain England’s university funding system ahead of the publication of its review into post-18 education, describing any move to shift funding from higher to further education as “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
It is thought that the review panel, led by Philip Augar, may recommend reducing annual undergraduate fees from £9,250 to between £6,500 and £7,500, with the extent of any replacement public funding unknown. The review, which was initially due to report by the end of 2018, is now expected to publish its conclusions in April or May.
Ms Fairbairn, whose organisation represents about 190,000 businesses, insisted that any reduction in tuition fee levels risked undermining the vitality of England’s universities, which, she will say, not only “educate people to the highest levels [but] are also some of our biggest regional employers, supporters of new businesses and incomparable vehicles of soft power.”
“Our universities are a precious national asset. They should be protected and nurtured,” she will say, adding: “A cut in tuition fees would be a gross abrogation of responsibility.”
Ms Fairbairn will admit that the current tuition fees system “isn’t perfect” and that the “cost of living while studying can be a challenge,” but will emphasise how university participation levels among students from poorer backgrounds are higher than “at any time in history”.
“The one great virtue of the current tuition fees system is how it helps make university accessible to everyone, including students from disadvantaged backgrounds and it’s working,” she will add.
She will also highlight the “real risk” of those who seek to make political capital by stressing the high cost of university education.
“If politicians fan the flames of fear about the cost of university, they could end up deterring the very people who could most benefit from university and cause them needless harm,” she will say.
Speaking at Cambridge Regional College, she will also highlight how vocational education is not enough of a national priority, stating that further education and technical colleges “aren’t given the consideration they deserve”.
“As a national resource, they’ve been underestimated. Historically, they’ve been underfunded. Politically, they’ve been neglected. And frankly, post-Brexit – where education is a rare homegrown source of strength, we shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
On a new role for colleges and universities, she will add that the “government should take the idea of flexible university courses seriously, along with the funding mechanisms to support them.”