Theresa May is launching a major review into higher education funding.
The Conservative Party promised a review of tertiary education funding in their election manifesto last May, and this is now being launched amid further debate about whether the UK higher education sector offers value for money. With average graduate debt reaching £50,000 and UK tuition fees being among the highest in the world, this review is seen by many critics as much-needed.
The review will analyse the entirety of UK higher education funding, including the decline in lifelong and part-time study, but will mainly focus on undergraduate tuition fees, which have attracted further controversy following their rise to £9250.
Sector experts have suggested a range of options that the government may explore in the review.
Many higher education specialists have suggested reversing the Coalition’s 2012 introduction of £9000 fees by reducing fees back to £6000 per year. Critics have however pointed out that this would mainly benefit higher-earning graduates who would have a smaller loan to pay back, and the fee reduction would ultimately be funded by universities reducing expenditure on widening participation measures.
It is unlikely that the government will decide to completely scrap tuition fees
Experts have also recommended decreasing interest rates on student loan repayments to make debts more affordable. Currently graduates pay 9% of their income above £25,000, with remaining debts are cleared 30 years after graduation; the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that 77% of current graduates will have at least part of their loan written off by the Treasury as their level of earning would not allow them to pay back the entire debt.
Many experts support a reversal of the Conservative government’s decision to remove maintenance grants, which provided non-repayable financial support for students from low-income backgrounds.
There is widespread support for their return from both the public and the University and College Union. May suggested that these grants may be reintroduced as the report will examine “how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed. That includes how disadvantaged students and learners receive maintenance support”.
The most controversial option is the introduction of variable fees, which would see fees differing between courses depending on financing costs and potential graduate earnings. Although supported by new Education Secretary Damian Hinds, this option has been heavily criticised within both the higher education sector and the Party. It is feared that disadvantaged students will consequently apply for the cheapest courses with the poorest graduate opportunities, which The Guardian describes as “hindering rather than boosting social mobility”.
Speaking against variable fees, Labour Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner described how “charging more for the courses that help graduates earn the most would put off students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from getting those same qualifications. As part of our industrial strategy we need to ensure that we get more students on those courses.”
It is unlikely that the government will decide to completely scrap tuition fees. Although the Labour Party’s support for free higher education has brought them immense support among young voters, the Conservative Party regards this as unaffordable.
Asked about the impact of the review, a Newcastle University spokesperson said: “Newcastle University has a strong track record in opening up opportunities for students from less advantaged backgrounds and providing financial support for those most in need.
“We are keen to ensure that students with the potential to succeed aren’t put off from university by concerns about whether they can afford it.
“Newcastle University is highly respected for its quality of education and develops the graduates employers are seeking across all disciplines, highlighted by our excellent graduate employment statistics.”