The Prime Minister has promised a review of the flawed university tuition loan system, but tertiary education leaders are left wondering how a financial black hole would be filled, Aban Contractor reports.
Prime Minister Theresa May today came under pressure from university chiefs and staff and student unions after she revealed plans to cut some tuition fees, but failed to say how the funding hole would be filled.
In a press release published late on Sunday night, Mrs May conceded that England now had one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world that left “students from the lowest-income households bearing the highest levels of debt”.
A wide-ranging, independent review of post-18-year-old education would look at reducing tuition fees from the current £9,250 annual limit. Announced in Derby today, Mrs May said author and financier Philip Augar would chair the year-long review.
A cut in tuition fees may seem like an easy political solution, but it would see universities in England struggle to provide students with the world-class education they currently enjoy. Universities UK
Mrs May’s comments came on the same day as the publication of a damning report by the influential cross-party Treasury Committee which called on the Government to cut interest rates which currently stand at 6.1 per cent, reintroduce maintenance grants and offer more help to part-time students.
Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants became one of the key issues for young voters at the last election.
A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK) – whose members are the vice-chancellors or principals of UK universities – said a cut in tuition fees may seem like an easy political solution, but it would see universities in England struggle to provide students with the world-class education they currently enjoy.
“Unless a cut to fees is met in full from other funding sources, we risk returning to a system where courses are seriously underfunded or the number of places capped,” the spokesperson told Chief-Exec.com.
“That would be bad for graduate skills and the economy, for social mobility and for student choice.
“As the IFS [Institute of Fiscal Studies] has made clear, it is higher earning graduates who would benefit most from lower fees. Our universities offer a world-renowned quality of education which depends on having stable and sustainable funding. This should not be put in jeopardy.”
‘Students also need to be able to study without taking on mountains of debt and the government must look at reintroducing grants for students while they study.’ University and College Union
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) – which represents university staff – said Mrs May’s review looked like little more than finding new ways to cut spending on universities.
“Linking the price of some degrees to earnings potential is deeply flawed and fails to acknowledge the many factors which affect graduate income,” Ms Hunt said.
“Plans to boost vocational learning will also fail unless the government is willing to invest in colleges and reverse damaging cuts which have weakened the further education sector.
“Instead of exploring ways to tweak the existing broken system which is amongst the most expensive in the world, the review needs to take a serious look at how to ensure our colleges and universities are properly funded. Students also need to be able to study without taking on mountains of debt and the government must look at reintroducing grants for students while they study.”
Ms Hunt said the Prime Minister could complain about how the UK has one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world, but it was the Conservatives that introduced it. Without a radical look at the whole system, little could really change.
In 2016-17, maintenance grants designed to help cover the living expenses of students from less privileged backgrounds were scrapped and replaced with a new system of loans which leaves students without other avenues of financial support saddled with higher debts.
The UUK spokesperson said one of the risks with introducing different fee levels by course was that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be pushed towards the ‘cheapest courses’.
“This could encourage fewer students to study higher-cost subjects, such as science and engineering, where there are skills shortages.
“It’s also wrong to consider tuition fees are just about teaching hours – they also pay for student support services, careers advice and university facilities that all students rightly expect. They’re not just course fees, they pay for the wider university experience.”
National Union of Students president Shakira Martin said NUS was pleased that Mrs May had finally recognised that the current system was not fit for purpose.
“Today was a missed opportunity for the government to address the real issues facing students up and down the country – and we hope the review process ensures that these issues are suitably engaged with and addressed,” she said.
“Support for students through maintenance grants and other financial support needs to be a fundamental part of the year-long review.
“… It is concerning to see no student representation yet and we urge the government to ensure there is meaningful engagement with students and student representatives throughout the process.”