Public opposition to England’s current tuition fees regime outweighs support for it, but the same is true of Labour’s plan to scrap fees and the issue is a low priority for voters, according to the results of a YouGov poll for Times Higher Education.
The results of the poll were published as the government faces intense pressure to review the system in England, under which fees will rise to £9,250 this autumn. The pressure follows Labour’s impact at the general election with its no-fees policy and a damning report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that highlights problems with the loans system – principally changes made after the trebling of fees in 2012 to freeze the repayment threshold and abolish maintenance grants.
The poll for THE, carried out online and covering 1,358 adults in England, explained that fees will rise to £9,250 a year this autumn, that students do not have to pay the fees up front, but instead pay using students loans that are repaid when they are graduates earning above £21,000, and that debts are written off after 30 years.
Participants were asked whether they support or oppose the current system. In response, 43 per cent opposed the current system, compared with 39 per cent who supported it and 19 per cent who selected “don’t know”.
Another question referred to Labour’s election policy to abolish tuition fees and fund students and universities from taxation. Respondents were asked whether, from what they had heard of this policy, they supported or opposed it.
In response, 37 per cent supported the policy, compared with 41 per cent who opposed it and 22 per cent who selected “don’t know”.
The polling indicates a lack of consensus around the headline issue of tuition fees, although living costs are additionally a hugely significant issue in student funding.
Do you support or oppose the current system of tuition fees in England?
Do you support or oppose Labour’s plan to abolish tuition fees in England and fund students and universities from taxation?
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov plc. Total sample size was 1,607 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12 and 13 July 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all Great Britain adults (aged 18+). Figures referenced are based on England only. Note: Figures have been rounded
Participants were also given a list of issues and asked to select which three or four, if any, were the most important issues when deciding how to vote in a general election. Tuition fees was ranked 14th out of 17 on the list – topped by Britain leaving the European Union, health and the economy – and was chosen as one of the most important issues by just 6 per cent of participants.
However, tuition fees were a far higher priority for respondents aged 18 to 24, of whom 17 per cent put the issue among their election priorities. Within that age group, just 26 per cent supported the current system, while 55 per cent supported Labour’s policy to scrap fees.
There was also stronger opposition to the current system among respondents from the ABC1 “social grade” (equating to middle class), than among those from the C2DE group (equating to working class).
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said: “This poll confirms that university tuition fees are relatively unpopular among the younger generation of people who have had to pay them – as indeed it is among middle-class people who are much more likely to have been to university.
“Doubtless Labour’s stance in favour of abolishing fees will have been part – although only part – of the mix that enabled the party to do so well in the general election among the under-forties.”
The British Social Attitudes survey found in 2015 that just 21 per cent of respondents “were completely opposed to charging fees”.
Professor Curtice said: “University fees are not necessarily unpopular in principle. However, the current level of the fee is above what many feel is reasonable, and thus risks continuing public acceptance. Some measure of reform is likely to be necessary if the policy is to be politically sustainable in the long run.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “To my mind, these fascinating results confirm that our politicians should not undertake panicky changes now.
“There is some support for and some opposition to the current system, but these results show that student finance just isn’t the high electoral priority that many people believe.”
Mr Hillman, a former Conservative government adviser on universities, said that “no one, including those who love and those who hate the current fees system, should be scared of it being reviewed”, singling out the abolition of maintenance grants as among elements “very hard to defend”.
But he added that “the way to deal with such issues is through measured discussion not rushed changes in response to an unnecessary election and an unclear election result”.