The UK government’s review of post-18 education in England is now expected to report in February, as belief grows in the sector that parliamentary arithmetic and Brexit will make it impossible to pass a tuition fee cut before the next general election.
Some in the sector have speculated that the government might instead adopt recommendations from the review panel – which leaks have indicated could include a lowering of the tuition fee cap and a minimum grade threshold for student loan access – as longer-term ambitions, perhaps as Conservative manifesto commitments at a future general election.
Other senior figures said that they have been shocked by the level of conviction in government and the Civil Service that major changes to higher education are required – and warned that even if the current make-up of Parliament makes passing such review recommendations impossible, the pressure for reform will not go away.
A report published last week by the conservative thinktank Onward, co-authored by former Theresa May adviser Will Tanner with a foreword by ex-No 10 and Treasury adviser Neil O’Brien, now a Tory MP, conducted polling that found that “44 per cent of people believe that ‘there are too many students going to university’”. It also argued that institutional courses deemed “low value” on the basis of graduate earnings data “should be gradually phased out”.
The expectation in the sector is that the review’s independent panel, led by Philip Augar, will report to the government in mid- or late February. The report had been delayed to take account of major changes to the accounting treatment of student loans announced by the Office for National Statistics.
The former education secretary Justine Greening and the former universities minister Jo Johnson – both moved from their posts at the Department for Education after opposing Ms May’s plan for a review – have been vocal in arguing that any fees and funding cut would harm the access regime and benefit only the wealthiest graduates.
The pair would be likely to lead a group of Tory rebels were the government to take secondary legislation to implement a fee cut to the House of Commons, where it does not have a majority.
With reports that up to 4,000 civil servants are being asked to abandon their day jobs to work on preparations for a no-deal Brexit, questions are also being raised about whether the government and the Civil Service will be able to process the review while the UK leaves the European Union.
If the government wanted a new fee regime in place for students entering university in 2020, it would need to pass the legislation this summer; if it wanted the changes in place for 2021 entry, it would need to pass the legislation in summer 2020.
The next general election is scheduled for 2022 – although a Brexit crisis could precipitate an election far sooner than that.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that it was “unlikely a lower fee cap could get through the Commons”.
But he argued that the theory that review plans could be turned into manifesto commitments ignored the government’s “deep desire to prove they have interesting ideas on domestic policy once Brexit is out of the way”.
In terms of the Onward report, Mr Hillman said that “although I don’t like the ideas in the report”, it “tells the rest of the world what Tories think about higher education…they are obsessed with the financial returns”.
If Ms May were to fall as prime minister, the key question would be whether the review would fall with her, or whether the prevalence of those views in No 10 and the Treasury would carry the review forward despite the opposition it has encountered from many former and current figures in the Department for Education.
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