Don’t ‘waste time’ on another funding review, says Greening

Solutions on higher education funding in England already known, says former secretary of state

December 6, 2023

England does not need another major higher education funding review because the way to overhaul the system to make it more sustainable for universities is already known, according to a former education minister.

Justine Greening, secretary of state for education between 2016 and 2018, told Times Higher Education’s Campus Live event that fixing the finance system should be seen as “absolutely imperative” for any new government following the next general election but there was no need to “waste more time”.

An exercise such as the Augar review of post-18 education did not need to be repeated, argued Ms Greening, who was in government alongside former universities minister Lord Johnson when Theresa May, prime minister at the time, set up the review.

“I think we know what the answers probably are, and frankly we’ve probably wasted enough time,” she told the event in Liverpool.

“If you had asked Jo Johnson and I, we could have told you most of what we needed Augar to come out with before he was set going. I think we’ve just got to crack on with this. It is delay that kills people’s faith in politics to drive change for the better.”

Asked what the priorities should be for the incoming government, Ms Greening – who now chairs the Purpose Universities Coalition – said it should “stop fighting culture wars”, which, she said, had been “very damaging” because they had “permeated into a broader consciousness in a negative way” and had been an “act of self-harm” to the UK’s world-class higher education system.

She said the government should “see universities and higher education for the opportunity it presents our country rather than being a problem to fix”.

On student financing, Ms Greening said changes were “long overdue” and had been needed back in 2017, but the election that year had in effect “broken the tuition fee system”, as fees have since been frozen at £9,250 despite rapidly rising inflation.

“It was clear to me, firstly, it was a very fragile policy architecture to fund higher education,” she said. “And secondly, it risked ultimately being anti-social mobility because of a debt aversion effect that would steadily kick in.”

Outlining what reforms could look like, Ms Greening said: “I think we need to keep the graduate contribution, make it more progressive, have it feed into a higher education fund akin to national insurance and probably reform the apprenticeship levy so it becomes a broader skills levy and employers can make a contribution because they rely on graduates as much as they do apprentices.”

Saying such a system was “possibly closer and more in reach than people realise”, she called on the Labour Party – currently tipped to win the general election, which must be called before January 2025 – to outline its position on higher education funding sooner rather than later.

“I really hope the Labour Party – having had an unsustainable approach of saying they would just scrap tuition fees – set out sooner rather than later their views on higher education funding,” Ms Greening said.

“One of the most important things for the sector is to gain certainty around investment so that a long-term approach can be taken.”

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