Cutting tuition fees in England would be “muddle-headed” and “regressive”, according to a vice-chancellor who warned that the rumoured move would only benefit the wealthiest graduates.
Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University, told an audience at the House of Commons that any reduction in undergraduate fees from the current cap of £9,250 would be the “most regressive change that could be envisaged”.
His comments at the event organised jointly by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy on 24 January come amid growing speculation that a major review of university funding promised by the prime minister in October could lead to a cut in tuition fees charged by some or all universities.
Professor Cameron, who has led the Birmingham university since September 2016, said that he was aware that there is “a lot of political pressure that tuition fees should come down”.
However, this would be a mistake as the current system “is just about as progressive as one could design” said Professor Cameron, explaining that the “majority of students were receiving a subsidy from the government because the majority do not pay off their debts in full”.
Any cut in tuition fees would only benefit those who paid off their debts in full, who were those benefiting most financially from their studies, said Professor Cameron.
“It is the most muddle-headed response in terms of how to make impact on equity and equality in the sector,” he said.
While he admitted that the system was “not perfect”, Professor Cameron claimed that the “most pernicious problem” with the current system was “the unjustifiably high level of interest on student loans”.
“If we are genuinely about the experience of students [the problem] is not about tuition fees, it is about cost of living during study,” he added, advocating a return of student maintenance grants that were scrapped in September 2016 in favour of maintenance loans.
Professor Cameron, who was previously deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia, also criticised the growing moves to monitor “inputs” to students, such as staff contact hours and student-to-staff ratios, rather than “outcomes”, such as graduate employment levels and student satisfaction scores.
He said that it was “unfortunate…[that ministers had] ceded to pressure to reduce the weighting of the National Student Survey” in the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework, saying that “outcomes are much harder to game than inputs”.