Former Conservative universities minister Lord Willetts has “pleaded guilty” on the decline in part-time students following the trebling of tuition fees in England, while the leader of the Browne review has criticised the government’s abolition of maintenance grants.
Lord Willetts and Lord Browne, who led the review of higher education funding that paved the way to the trebling of fees to £9,000 in 2012, appeared before the Treasury select committee’s inquiry on student loans on 13 December.
Labour MP and committee member Wes Streeting, a former National Union of Students president, asked them what regrets they had on funding policy – himself singling out the retrospective freeze on loan repayment thresholds and the decline in part-time student numbers as key problems.
“Part-time students: I plead guilty,” said Lord Willetts. “I was surprised at the time and remain shocked by what happened.”
He noted the Browne review’s recommendation that “those studying for a degree part time will be given proportionate access to funding to those studying full time”, instead of paying fees up front.
The government implemented that (although loan access is not available for those studying less than 25 per cent of full time) and also trebled fees for part-time students in 2012.
The number of entrants to courses that are less than half of full time has fallen by 56 per cent since 2010-11, the Higher Education Funding Council for England said earlier this year.
The government had “hoped and expected” that the extension of fee loans “would help part-time students, and it clearly didn’t work out that way”, Lord Willetts said.
What he had learned was that “there is not a single model that works for all students”, he continued. Income-contingent loans “work for some”, but “don’t work for others, like part-time students”, he added.
Unlike the government’s eventual system, the Browne review did not recommend a cap on fees, but a levy on fees above £6,000.
On his regrets, Lord Browne said: “Our proposal was a system. And strangely I regret that we did that. Because the system only works if you bought the whole thing. If you kept changing bits, it started not working.”
Lord Browne added: “I really do regret what we’ve done to part-time students.” Such students, often retraining, were a key, different kind of student population that needed special attention, he added.
“I also felt very strongly that…the government eliminated maintenance grants,” said Lord Browne, in reference to the decision taken by the Conservative government in 2015. This “makes it feel too expensive” to enter higher education “for so many people in this country”. That was “in my mind a bad thing”, he added.