A new inquiry into the financial sustainability of English higher education will look into whether a consortium of banks could offer student loans for tuition fees and living costs.
The controversial idea was floated in Times Higher Education last week by Rama Thirunamachandran, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University and former director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Ruth Thompson, a former senior civil servant for higher education who is co-chairing the Higher Education Commission inquiry, said it would consider the idea put forward by Professor Thirunamachandran.
“We should take seriously ideas from people who have worked in the system,” she said.
The inquiry by the HEC – an independent body made up of politicians, businesspeople, former vice-chancellors and other sector representatives – will seek to make “clear recommendations” that will allow higher education funding to be sustainable in the long term.
It will also “examine the role student fee levels play in creating greater financial sustainability”, according to the commission. The HEC inquiry follows damning verdicts on the current system from MPs on the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, which have warned that student loan write-offs will be much higher than predicted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, leaving a hole in the accounts.
Dr Thompson said that scrapping tuition fees altogether (or, on the other end of the spectrum, an entirely privately funded university system) might be considered by the inquiry, although the extent of its scope had not yet been decided.
“There’s not much that’s complete consensus” on funding policy, she said.
She said that there were “no preconceptions” about the inquiry’s recommendations and added that it wanted ideas and evidence “from anyone and everyone”.
Dr Thompson explained that the inquiry would welcome estimates of university teaching costs to inform the debate over tuition fee levels, but she cautioned: “I think you’ll find the most fantastic variation between institutions.” Because of this, she said that she doubted whether the commission would be able to offer “generalised advice” on tuition fee levels. “There are lots of different ways of delivering higher education, and they cost different amounts,” she said.
Dr Thompson was director general for higher education at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the precursor to BIS set up under Gordon Brown, then prime minister, in 2007. She retired in 2009.
Asked whether ministers worried about long-term financial problems – which would manifest themselves largely after they had left office – she said: “If they were to make a hole in the public finances…it would come home to roost.
“Maybe I’m taking a rosy view of ministers. But ministers I have worked with have seen beyond the end of their noses. I don’t think any minister I have ever worked with has taken the view: ‘the hell with it’.”
The inquiry will also be chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Norton of Louth, professor of government in the School of Politics, Philosophy and International Studies at the University of Hull. The final report is set to be launched in Parliament before Christmas.