Cutting English fees or student numbers ‘on Treasury agenda’

Government looking at ways to reduce cost of system as pandemic pushes enrolments up and loan repayments down

March 15, 2021
Four people jumping off from a harbour wall as a metaphor for cutting English fees and student numbers.
Source: Getty

A tuition fee cut in England could be back on the agenda as the Treasury seeks to tackle the rising cost of higher education, but restricting student entry through minimum grades is said to be under discussion, too, with some suggesting the use of GCSEs is being explored.

A government consultation on a potential minimum entry requirement (MER) for students to obtain loans for entry to higher education and on wider student funding issues may come after Easter, some in the sector expect.

The Treasury is seen as actively pursuing ways to lower spending on higher education, as the impact of the pandemic on the jobs market is likely to mean more students entering university and will lower repayments into the student loans system.

The government’s interim response to the Augar review, published in January, said there would be “consideration of elements mentioned” by the review, “including student finance terms and conditions” and “minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions”, with a final response at the comprehensive spending review.

The idea of lowering tuition fees from £9,250 a year to £7,500, recommended by the Augar review, is now an idea being looked at by the Treasury as a means to lower the outlay on loans, sources suggested. There would be no government funding to replace lost fee income under such a plan.

But if that idea – previously fought by universities – proves too challenging to deliver, another option to deliver a cut in loan outlay would be an MER restricting entry to higher education.

The Augar review mooted, but did not directly recommend, setting an MER for students to access student loans. It is thought to have examined a DDD threshold at A level or equivalent.

Times Higher Education understands that there has been recent discussion in government of introducing an MER, with exemptions to the minimum tariff – such as for “strategically important” subjects – seen as potentially easing the impact on universities in relatively deprived areas.

Some in the sector suggest that there is discussion of whether to use GCSEs in an MER. Making maths and English GCSEs a prerequisite for entry to higher education has previously been discussed in government, THE understands.

But setting any kind of MER will be intensely controversial, as it would rely on student grades allocated during the pandemic’s huge disruption to education and exams, as well as raising concerns about the exclusion of poorer students.

Another option to cut costs that sector figures see the government as likely to explore would be reintroducing student number controls for universities, abolished by a Conservative government in 2015.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said an MER would be “particularly challenging” in terms of applying it to the large number of A-level equivalent qualifications, while “issues around access” and exemptions for part-time and mature students “tend to make this impractical as an option”.

“Which brings us back to the choice of fee cuts and/or number controls of some kind,” Professor Westwood continued. The latter was “the more likely if they [the government] really want to reduce numbers and/or save money over the long term”, he suggested.

Professor Westwood also said the Treasury was more likely than the Department for Education to take account of “levelling up” – of the argument that “cutting fees or [student] numbers in places like Teesside, Huddersfield and Wolverhampton isn’t just harming contribution in skills [and] applied R&D potential but also cutting jobs and reducing spending” in such places.

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Reader's comments (1)

How would this impact on mature students and those with non-standard qualifications? what about the widening participation adgenda? has it been thought threw or is it just another knee-jerk response to a problem (arguable) that was created by earlier gvt policy