Labour may consider a Robbins- or Dearing-style major review of higher education, it has been suggested, as a former Universities UK president warned that the prospect of introducing a £6,000 tuition fee policy raises a “nightmare scenario” of lost income for universities.
As speculation grows that the party will make an announcement on higher education next month, Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said that the prospect of “a Labour commitment to reducing fees to £6K carries the most significant risks” of any issue facing the sector at the coming general election.
The BBC’s economics editor, Robert Peston, wrote in a blog post at the weekend that he had been told that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, “wants to next month announce an eye-catching policy of cutting maximum university fees for students by a third, from £9,000 to £6,000”.
Some sources suggest that Labour’s announcement next month may include a pledge to hold a major review of higher education, which could allow deferral of a detailed fees policy. Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, told the House of Commons in a debate on higher education funding earlier this month that there is “an unanswerable case” for a review given the rising cost to the government of student loans. He went on to say that if “things should change, good people should reflect on what those things should be”, and added that “we should call that reflection a review”.
Sir Steve, who was UUK president in 2010 when MPs voted to raise tuition fees to £9,000, discussed Labour’s deliberations at a Higher Education Policy Institute seminar on January.
“We absolutely need clarity on this proposal, because the nightmare scenario is that a party fighting an election makes promises to win seats, but then cannot deliver the resource to make up the difference to universities,” he said.
Sir Steve said that his own estimates put the cost of a £6,000 fees policy at £2 billion a year.
He added that Labour’s “common answer” on how to find the money “is that by reducing fees from £9K to £6K, they will save future RAB charges [the write-offs on student loans], and these could be funnelled into [government spending]. But this simply does not work, because they are different types of money, treated differently in the government’s accounts.”
Meanwhile, Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said that if Labour’s plan for £6,000 fees “has to be pulled together – produced, prepared, published – in the next couple of weeks, it will of course become principally an election battleground issue when actually it probably needs to be considered in a more sober light”.
He suggested that Mr Peston’s post might be part of a “conditioning of expectations between now and the election”, for Labour “to say ‘we may not now this side of an election publish all of the detail’”.