Prime minister announces review of tertiary education

The higher education reforms of recent years under which student tuition fees have more than tripled, have made equality of access to university more difficult and have created one of the most expensive systems in the world.

Yet they have failed to create the competitive market between universities that their architects envisaged, the Prime Minister, Theresa May has admitted.

Announcing a year-long review of tertiary education last Monday, she said: “Making university truly accessible to 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 for their investment.”

She hinted that variable fees, dependent on the cost of running the course, may be an option on the agenda.

“The competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged, simply has not emerged. All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for graduate courses.”

At the same time there has been no change on the length of degrees, as also envisaged, with three-year courses remaining the norm.

“And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course. We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”

May, speaking at Derby College, claimed that the government has already begun to take action to address some of these concerns by scrapping the increase in fees due this year and by increasing the amount graduates have to earn before they start repaying their fees to £25,000 (US$35,000).

She said the review will focus on “how we ensure that tertiary education is accessible to everyone, from every background, how our funding system provides value for money, both for students and taxpayers, how we incentivise choice and competition right across the sector and how we deliver the skills that we need as a country”.

But the context is that the tripling of tuition fees and the more recent abolition of maintenance grants for living costs for students from disadvantaged families, has come at a political cost. The Conservatives lost their majority at the last election due to surging support for Labour among young voters who favour its commitment to abolish tuition fees.

The level of student debt – graduates typically leave with a debt of £50,000 or more – is also a “serious concern, not just for students but parents and grandparents too”, May admitted, with an eye on the generation where Conservatives’ support is strongest.

The review will now look at the whole question of how students and graduates contribute to the cost of their studies, including the level, terms and duration of their contribution. But there is no suggestion that this will lead to an end to tuition fees.

“Our goal is a funding system which provides value for money for graduates and taxpayers, so the principle that students as well as taxpayers contribute to the cost of their studies is an important one,” May said.

The prime minister argued that shifting the whole burden of university tuition onto the shoulders of the taxpayers would force tax increases on those who do not go to university, would leave universities competing with schools and hospitals for scarce resources, and would necessitate a reintroduction of the cap on student numbers.

May acknowledged that there are strong challenges to overcome in higher education, particularly in social equity in relation to access and employment outcomes.

“Almost a quarter of the students at our research-intensive universities come from the 7% of the population who go to private schools,” she said. “And the professions which draw their recruits primarily from these institutions remain unrepresentative of the country as a whole, skewed in favour of a particular social class.”

But she also attacked the snobbery that leads many students to believe a university degree at a Russell Group university is what the world expects of them, with pressure not to consider alternatives such as the pursuit of a technical course – the same pressure that ensures little attention is paid to how to support the training and develop the skills of young people who do not go to university.

Cautious response

Universities, too, are not keen on radical change. Responding to May’s speech, Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, warned that the future success of higher education depends on universities having “stable and sustainable funding – which the current system provides”.

But Professor Beer also acknowledged that the current system could be “better understood and feel fairer to students”. She said: “Injecting new investment to help the poorest students with their living costs and tackling the decline in mature and part-time study must be priorities.”

This point was echoed by University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell, who said the review is an opportunity to listen carefully to students’ concerns and put in place a system which is both fair, and seen to be fair. “It is also an opportunity to revisit the question of support for part-time students, mature students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, where it is now clear the current system has a range of flaws.”

But Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, and former higher education minister when variable fees were introduced in 2005, said the increase in student fees to £9,000 (US$12,600) went too far in shifting the balance of responsibility for funding higher education between the state and the individual.

He said it was right to review this but that any changes would need a transition phase and some guarantees to universities over how they are to be compensated for a reduction in fee income. “Otherwise it will result in widespread job losses and a reduction in standards as universities scramble to balance their already stretched finances.”

But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the most important recent change was not the raising of the fee cap but the removal of the student number controls, and shifting more of the cost onto taxpayers would make their re-imposition more likely, which would be bad news for social mobility.

“When places are rationed, the middle classes win the race for higher education and the poorest and most under-represented groups lose out.”

‘Two-tier system’

Rammell would strongly oppose the introduction of variable fees because “you can't judge the value of education based on the salary someone is going to earn or else no-one would choose to be a nurse or work in the arts if that was the case”. He said it would “create a two-tier system – students from poorer families will choose those courses with the lowest fees, disadvantaging themselves from the start”.

He highlighted two key challenges that should be addressed, ‘penal’ rate of interest on student loans – 6.1% – and the urgent need to reconsider the scrapping of non-repayable maintenance loans for students from low-income families.

Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, highlighted a third key challenge: making the system work for mature and part-time students “whose numbers have dropped drastically in recent years and show no sign of recovering”.