Halfon: ‘No way am I going to advocate increasing tuition fees’

‘Not in a million years’ will English fee cap be raised during cost-of-living crisis, says minister, despite universities’ warnings on falling funding

August 2, 2023
A sign painted on the side of a house directs people to a local food bank  to illustrate Halfon: ‘No way I’ll support raising fees’
Source: Getty images

Raising England’s tuition fee cap during a cost-of-living crisis is “just not going to happen, not in a million years”, according to Robert Halfon, despite universities’ increasingly vociferous warnings over declining funding.

The higher education minister also told Times Higher Education that the Westminster government’s recently announced plans for student number controls on what it termed “rip-off” courses would mean people being “encouraged to go to university”, rather than cutting numbers.

Universities UK has called for a “national conversation” on finding a sustainable solution to university funding across the UK, amid a freeze in England’s £9,250 tuition fee cap confirmed until at least 2024-25. That means funding being eroded by inflation for at least seven years since fees last rose, with former Conservative minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone warning this could lead to universities “falling over one by one” if the cap is not uprated with inflation.

The Department for Education pitched its student number control plan as being about ensuring “high-quality provision” in universities. Will cutting university funding increase the quality of degrees?

“If you compare what universities have had to the FE sector, there’s no comparison,” Mr Halfon answered. “If you look overall, the vast majority of universities are in good financial health – that doesn’t mean there aren’t some [that are not] and I know OfS [the Office for Students] is investigating some…and I completely get challenges that are being faced.

“But if you look at the research grant, the loans, the money we give – £1.5 billion Strategic Priorities Grant plus the £750 million on teaching facilities [additional government funding announced last year] – universities get £40 billion a year.”

Mr Halfon, MP for the Essex town of Harlow, continued: “If you compare that to the FE sector over the years – although we’re increasing skills funding by £3.8 billion – given the difficult financial constraints we have, I can’t go to my constituents in Harlow and say, ‘By the way, on top of everything else, on top of all the other cost-of-living challenges, we’re going to increase your tuition fees.’ It’s just not going to happen, not in a million years.

“I just think we have to be real, that we have to live in the world as it is, which is an incredibly difficult one faced by cost-of-living challenges.”

Referring to another element of the DfE’s response to its higher education reform consultation, the minister added: “No way am I going to advocate increasing tuition fees – in fact we’re just going to cut them for classroom-based foundation years.”

Asked about the number controls plan – under which the OfS has been asked to look at capping numbers on courses that fall short of its quality metrics on continuation, completion and progression to managerial jobs – the minister said the move aligned with his priorities on “jobs, skills, [and] social justice”.

“How can it be right that if you are from a disadvantaged background and you take out that loan [for fees of £9,250 a year] then you might go on a course that has either poor continuation or completion or progression?” he asked.

Is the aim to reduce the number of students going to university?

“Absolutely not,” replied Mr Halfon. “What it will do is improve quality.”

He added that “people will be encouraged to go to university because they will know that if they are going to do a [degree] course they are going to have a good outcome”.

Is the number controls plan something of an “if” because, given the time it will take to implement such a policy, it won’t be in place until after the next election and a new government takes over?

“It can’t, obviously, happen tomorrow – it will take a couple of years,” acknowledged Mr Halfon.

He also highlighted the importance of Institutes of Technology – collaborations between universities, further education colleges and employers he described as “new tertiary education for the 21st century” – as well as the lifelong loan entitlement, which is “going to completely change the nature of how people think about Level 4, Level 5 and Level 6 higher education”.

It was important “not just to look at the statement [on number controls] as a standalone product – if you look at it alongside the IoTs, the extra skills offerings of degree apprenticeships and the LLE, you’ve got an incredible triangle of skills and good higher education and flexible products and choice and quality that we’re offering to learners,” he said.

Asked about future priorities, Mr Halfon said he was “determined to do…everything I can to push more degree apprenticeships across the system. We’re doing a lot of work to try to encourage providers, whether it’s financial incentives, getting rid of bureaucracy and regulations.”

Degree apprenticeships, which he has long championed, were a “no brainer”, he added, given they meant “no debt…a good skill…a good job at the end”.



Print headline: Halfon: ‘No way I’ll support raising fees’

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Reader's comments (6)

Our fees are the highest in Europe. Some countries don't even have fees for certain courses and their international fees (which we now come under thanks to Brexit!) are still cheaper than ours. That alone shows how underfunded education is in the UK.
Maybe the minister could have a word with UCEA and tell them there is a cost of living crisis on and that they need to give staff a decent pay increase so that the sector can attract and retain good staff.
Maybe both sides of the dispute need to realise a campaign for more pay is a campaign for higher fees, given the article in this publication yesterday saying 4 University could not implement the second half of the pay award of 5% to 8% as they were in deficit.
Things do cost money. How they are paid for is another matter.
So qute happy to foist massive increases on the taxation of booze that everyone (who drinks) are forced to pay with no benefit to anyone, but no additional funding for institutions that actually benefit the nation?
How is taxation of something known to be harmful (if then spent properly) of no benefit to society?