The UK government has played down the prospect of a rethink of England’s university tuition fee policy, after a senior minister said that there may need to be a “national debate” on the issue.
Damian Green, the first secretary of state, told an event on 1 July that student debt was a “huge issue”. He was speaking at the Bright Blue thinktank in the wake of the general election result that saw support for Labour surge among young voters, following the party’s pledge to scrap fees that now stand at £9,250.
Mr Green’s comments attracted widespread attention over the weekend – even making the front page of the Mail on Sunday.
Times Higher Education understands that there was no intention to signal a change of policy and that Mr Green is thought to have simply gone too far in answer to a question.
Nevertheless, the episode reveals the level concern among senior Conservatives about the success of Labour’s policy of free tuition. As THE reported previously, many vice-chancellors now see tuition fees as being “back on the agenda”, according to sector leaders, particularly with Labour potentially within striking distance of victory if Theresa May’s government collapses.
Writing on Twitter, Jo Johnson, the universities minister, was dismissive of the idea of free tuition.
“Abolishing tuition fees & funding unis out of general taxation would be regressive, benefiting richest graduates, as IFS [the Institute for Fiscal Studies] has repeatedly said,” Mr Johnson wrote.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary and former education secretary, also played down the prospect of scrapping fees.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Gove said: “I think we should have a conversation about it, but it’s important again to look at Damian’s remarks and what he actually said.
“Damian wasn’t talking about getting rid of it. What Damian was saying, what I believe, is that if we have to fund higher education, and if people who get university degrees go on to earn well, which is good, they should pay something back and that’s what the current system does.”
Mr Gove added: “It’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do. I believe fundamentally that the purpose of government policy is to support everyone equally and if you don’t benefit from a university education, you shouldn’t have to pay additionally to support those who do.”
In his speech, Mr Green had urged the Conservatives to “change hard” to win back young, educated voters.
Asked about students and graduates’ anger about tuition fee debts, Mr Green said that this was a “huge issue” and that “in the long term we’ve got to show that they are getting value for the money”.
“If you wanted to say you want to reduce [fees] then either fewer people go to university or the experience would be less,” he said. “Because the only other way you can get extra money to go in, if you wanted the same number of people, the same kind of teaching, would be to take it from working people through their taxes…it may well be that this is a national debate that we need to have.”
Amatey Doku, the National Union of Students’ vice-president (higher education), said that students had been “saddled with soaring levels of debt for too long”.
“It’s clear that the government is licking its wounds after the election and finally waking up to the realisation that when young people vote, we are a force to be reckoned with,” he said.