How the decision to triple tuition fees changed history

For a good case study in unintended consequences, it would be hard to beat the decision passed after a stormy debate by MPs in December 2010 that went on to imperil not only years of higher education reforms but, inadvertently, the country’s future in the European Union.

Allow me to elaborate. The decision was the vote to pass the fledgling Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government’s bill to allow universities to triple the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 (then US$14,185).

The purpose of the measure was to compensate for an 80% cut in the teaching budget at a time when the country was planning austerity measures to aid recovery from the financial crisis of 2008.

The proposals were passed after weeks of student protests that saw Liberal Democrat MPs' offices and university buildings occupied and violence erupt at Conservative Party headquarters. There were running clashes with the police.

The source of anger was the Liberal Democrats’ decision to back the Conservative proposal to allow tuition fees to triple despite having pledged during the general election to phase fees out altogether.

To disgruntled students, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, said: "In an ideal world, no graduate would have to contribute more for their degree. But our economic reality is far from ideal. The real decision is not if we reform university funding but how we reform it. And how we help the people who need it most."

The rise in the fee cap was balanced by a raising of the repayment threshold, the level of income at which graduates would begin to pay back student debt, from £15,000 to £21,000, and a progressive pay-back system in which graduates earning the most would pay back the most. At the same time, up to 18,000 students, admittedly not a huge number, from poorer backgrounds would quality for up to two years’ free tuition.

To disgruntled Liberal Democrat voters, Clegg argued that supporting the bill was a necessary compromise allowing the junior coalition partners to secure in return an increase in spending on child care and extra support for the school system via a pupil premium, despite the context of the austerity programme.

But there was an onslaught in the media highlighting that graduates would leave university owing upwards of £50,000 once the higher fees kicked in. This at a time when young people were already priced out of the housing market.

Students, alarmed at the prospect of leaving university with massive debt and faint hopes of ever securing a mortgage, saw it as a sell-out enabling the Liberal Democrats to taste power for the first time since the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s and be part of the government for the first time since the First World War.

For higher education, granting universities the freedom to raise tuition fees was designed to achieve two changes.

First, it was seen as a way to shift more of the burden of funding of higher education onto the consumers of higher education provision.

Second, it was also meant to help the process of marketisation of higher education, leading universities to compete by setting different tuition fee rates. The hope was that this would allow student choice to catalyse improvements in the quality, price and relevance of universities’ provision.

The latter did not happen because virtually all universities chose instead to set their tuition fees at the cap price, fearing that offering a lower price would suggest they were offering lower quality.

A Higher Education Commission report in 2014 concluded that “introducing market forces to a sector that does not operate a market puts the financial sustainability of the sector at risk” and recommended a retreat from the notion of treating students as consumers.

Marketisation, though, does not rely on variable tuition fees alone and has been encouraged over the past 10 years via several key reforms aimed at improving transparency on the assessment of the quality of research and more recently teaching.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) introduced under the Coalition government in 2014 created a new system for assessing the quality of research in UK universities and higher education colleges to inform selective allocation of funding for research, provide accountability and provide benchmarking information to establish reputational yardsticks.

The cap on student numbers was lifted in 2015 and along with this came a redoubling of commitment to ensure students got value for money from their tuition fees. Hence the development of the Teaching Excellence Framework, to recognise excellent teaching by UK higher education providers by rating them as gold, silver or bronze, with the explicit aim of helping prospective students choose where to study. The ratings are judged by an independent panel of students, academics and other experts.

A third important plank of these reforms was the creation of a new regulator, the Office for Students, which began its work this January, with the explicit role of promoting and supporting access to disadvantaged students, protecting students’ interests, ensuring students can make informed choices, and ensuring high-quality higher education is provided to them.

The jury is out on the impact these latest reforms will make. The Teaching Excellence Framework was first trialled in 2016-17, and has now became the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and last month it was announced that the rating system will be extended to provide ratings by subject in addition to the university as a whole.

This is heralded by the universities minister as a “global first” and a step towards fulfilling the promise of a “revolution in accountability” that would provide aspiring students with the information most helpful to them when choosing where to study. TEF ratings by subject may prove to be the most useful contribution to informing student choice.

Assessment systems, though, can be subject to constant modification of methodology.

Already changes in guidance on the use or weighting of indicators in the TEF have led to suggestions from at least one expert – Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University and a co-investigator for University College London’s Centre for Global Higher Education – that it is becoming less about measuring teaching quality and more about meeting government priorities of achieving employment and salary outcomes and ensuring a fixed proportion of students can do well.

Emphatic verdict

When it comes to the tripling of tuition fees, the people’s jury has passed an emphatic verdict. The Liberal Democrats were punished in the 2015 general election for U-turning in spectacular fashion on their pledge to abolish tuition fees. Young Lib Dem-inclined voters in particular turned away in their droves or, disillusioned with politics, did not turn up to vote. The party lost 49 of its 57 seats.

This was to prove disastrous for higher education due to the failure to extend the life of the Coalition. It was disastrous because David Cameron had finally secured a majority but one so small at 12 seats that he was reliant on support from hardline Eurosceptics to stay in power, and had no option but to hold to his promise to allow a referendum on membership of the European Union.

Given the result and given that Cameron was an ardent ‘Remainer’ on Brexit, it could yet be judged as the gravest miscalculation in British political history since the Suez Crisis in 1956, with a similarly disastrous effect on the UK’s international standing.

Among the many factors that influenced the 52%-48% vote in favour of Brexit a year later was the sidelining of the voice of the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European party, due to its now seeming irrelevance as an untrustworthy, spent force.

Perhaps more significantly, the continuing disillusionment of young voters with politicians in part due to the betrayal over tuition fees had led many of them to stay at home during the referendum rather than vote. Young voters were overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU. With an outcome that would have changed on a mere 2% swing, these two factors could easily have been enough to make the difference.

Impact on universities

Alarmingly for universities, the Brexit campaign leader Michael Gove had proved popular in dismissing the views of “experts saying they know what is best”, which has since led to debate over the implied disconnect between universities and the communities that surround them.

More importantly, the rush among hardline Conservatives post-referendum to interpret the vote as an endorsement of a hard Brexit – leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, abandoning free movement and initially even eschewing a transition deal – posed a serious threat to higher education.

A transition period has now been agreed, but the UK’s leading role in the European Union’s research programmes, its participation in Erasmus+ study and exchange programmes, and its ability to recruit EU staff and students all remain up in the air and under threat, as reported extensively in these pages.

If Nick Clegg and David Cameron had chosen a graduate tax instead of tripling tuition fees, it might all have played out differently.

Instead, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s left-wing leader, is now leading the charge to abolish tuition fees. He confounded his critics by surging to a creditable position in the snap election last year that forced Conservative party leader Theresa May into a minority government.

If he wins the next election, which could be called at any point in the next year due to divisions over Brexit, the main funding mechanism underpinning the higher education reforms and the drive towards marketisation could be torn apart. If students stop paying fees, can they really be expected to act like consumers?