Tory manifesto could freeze English fees and target ‘low value HE’

Restrictions on loan access for university courses with low graduate earnings under consideration for Tory manifesto, though Augar-inspired cuts not ruled out

November 7, 2019
Punting down river in winter
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A five-year freeze of undergraduate tuition fees in England and a promise to tackle “low value” degree courses by restricting access to student loans are among the options under consideration for the Conservatives’ general election manifesto, Times Higher Education understands.

Plans to lower annual tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 – in line with the Augar review’s recommendations – seem unlikely to become Tory election pledges despite renewed interest in the panel’s proposals. Last week, several Augar panel members visited Downing Street to discuss the fee reduction plan, which Universities UK claims could cost institutions up to £2.4 billion a year in lost income.

Instead of a tuition fee cut – strongly opposed by Chris Skidmore, the universities minister, and by his predecessor, Jo Johnson – the manifesto is more likely to include a pledge to freeze undergraduate tuition fees until 2025, THE understands.

However, the manifesto might include other proposals from the Augar review, such as calling for action on “low value higher education” that fails to reward graduates with an earnings premium.

“The Augar proposals are definitely not dead,” a Whitehall source told THE, adding that the manifesto might include recommendations to “‘ensure value for money’ for students”. That might, for example, mean using Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data, based on tax records, to limit access to student loans for some university courses – implementing the Augar review’s recommendation that “bearing down on low value HE” should be a priority for the government.

Other policies from the Augar review – including scrapping or reducing in-study interest payments, and providing more support for post-18 technical education – are believed to be under consideration. This agenda is being driven, some suggest, by Rachel Wolf, a former education adviser to David Cameron and former adviser to Boris Johnson as shadow higher education minister, who is co-authoring the Conservative manifesto. Ms Wolf is the daughter of Baroness Wolf, a member of the Augar panel who is professor of public sector management at King’s College London. “It’s the Wolf axis at work,” a source told THE.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, raised questions about reviving Augar’s recommendations given that they involve extending the student loan repayment period from 30 to 40 years.

“Adding 10 years to this repayment phase will not be very popular,” said Mr Hillman, who added that the “politics of Augar was always going to be around that repayment period” in light of the growing numbers of graduates grappling with student loan debts, against a far smaller number of student voters, unlikely to vote Conservative in any case.

“I would like to see them do something around maintenance grants and cost of living for students, but this is so expensive,” said Mr Hillman, arguing that any offer in this area would have little electoral impact given “the zero fees offer” on the table from Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Green Party.

Because of Labour’s commitment to abolishing tuition fees at English universities at the 2017 general election – and the totemic significance of this policy for its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – there is more certainty around the party’s policies on higher education funding than there is about the precise nature of the Conservatives’ policies. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman, Layla Moran, has previously told THE that the party was “moving towards” a graduate tax policy and that the £9,250 fees system “definitely needs reforming”.

With Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to the prime minister, pushing for a large increase in research spending, the Tory manifesto is also likely to mention science and innovation, others have predicted.

“For a Conservative government that is stuck in various ways, science and research offers a chance to tell a story about progress and the future, particularly one that appeals to some places, such as university towns, where they do not traditionally do well,” said Jack Stilgoe, senior lecturer in social studies of science at UCL.

Compared with increasing spending in other areas, “science is quite cheap and you get lots of PR bang for your buck”, said Dr Stilgoe, who observed that “while [science] tended to be a cross-party issue, Labour has not said a lot here, so the Tories could reclaim this as their own”.

However, the Conservatives were unlikely to include manifesto pledges on science funding, which “can feel quite wonkish” and can lack wider public appeal, Dr Stilgoe suggested. “I would not expect anything beyond broad statements about ‘making Britain the best place in the world to do science’,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Tory manifesto could freeze English fees

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Doesn't augar well for middle-ranking universities

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