UK prime minister Theresa May has announced a review into tuition fees for UK universities. Taking to the stage at a further education college in Derby, she said that the year-long review will consider all aspects of post-18 education and how young people can be supported to find the right education path that fits them, whether it be university or further education.
The review will focus on four key questions:
1. How to ensure that tertiary education is accessible to everyone from every background.
2. How the funding system provides value for money for both students and taxpayers.
3. How to incentivise choice and competition right across the sector.
4. How to deliver the skills that the UK needs.
“Making university truly accessible for young people from every background is not made easier by a funding system which leaves students from the lowest income households bearing the highest levels of debt, with many graduates left questioning the return they get on their investment,” said Ms May, acknowledging that the current system is not fit for purpose.
However, she said that scrapping tuition fees entirely would not be the solution as it would raise the burden on taxpayers (many of whom did not go to university) and universities may miss out on funding against other services. Removing fees could also reintroduce a cap on student numbers, she added.
So two other options would be to either reduce tuition fees or freeze them. It will be down to the panel conducting the review to decide whether either of these options is viable or if there is another alternative.
Ms May added that the government has already taken some steps towards changing the system by increasing the salary threshold where graduates have to start paying back their student loans (from £21,000 to £25,000) and by freezing tuition fees at £9,250 for the current academic year.
Something else that has been proposed is different fees for different subjects. For example, those studying arts and humanities subjects would pay less in tuition fees than those studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. This would reflect the fact that arts and humanities students usually have fewer contact hours and use less of the university’s resources than students who study a science or technology course.
However, there has been some criticism around this measure. The first is that some students may end up choosing cheaper courses and this could lead to an imbalance between the number of arts graduates and the number of STEM graduates. The second is that arts students have been subsidising science programmes for a while now. If arts tuition fees were cut, would that mean that STEM subjects would also see a reduction in the money coming in? And third, this could lead to a class divide – something that Ms May is so keen to eradicate and that she mentioned multiple times in her speech – with more advantaged students more likely to pick more expensive subjects.
Another key point made by Ms May is that students should be made aware of all the options they can pursue on leaving school, such as technical courses, apprenticeships, university education or employment. This would ensure that students are able to make choices about their future that suit them best, as there is not a one-size-fits-all pathway for post-18 education.
As with anything, government reviews are one way to assess a situation and provide an insight into what needs to be done to rectify problems. However, with the results of this review due out in a year, students will have to wait just a bit longer before they will see the benefits.
Required Reading is the regular blog from Times Higher Education student editor Seeta Bhardwa.