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Is another tuition fee hike on the horizon? May 11, 2015

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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Originally posted on Progress website:

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2015/05/11/is-another-tuition-fee-hike-on-the-horizon/

Is another tuition fee hike on the horizon?

In 2010, the first big flashpoint for the coalition government was the very public and very brutal, at least for the Liberal Democrats, clash over whether to increase tuition fees. The independent Browne review suggested no fee cap whatsoever. The Liberal Democrat manifesto had promised their abolition, the National Union of Students campaign pledge signed by all Liberal Democrat candidates opted for a freeze on fees and the Tories had not really said anything at all. Eventually the coalition opted for a fee cap of £9,000 a year, the Liberal Democrats broke their promise and the rest, as they say, is history, a bit like most of the Liberal Democrats members of parliament who broke the pledge.

But as soon as the vote to increase fees squeezed through parliament, passed by 21 votes, it became clear that issues of sustainability were coming to the fore. The resource accounting and budgeting charge for the new fee regime continued to rise steadily, and well beyond projections from BIS. By the end of the parliament, the latest figures suggested that for every £1 loaned to a student, 48p would never be paid back. Figures from the public accounts committee suggest that by 2042, the tuition fee black hole could be as big as £90bn, a system which critics described as costing students and the taxpayer more money than the previous regime, while part-time enrolments fell by 40 per cent during the last five years and universities are, privately at least, very concerned about the first generation of £9k students and their willingness to stump up yet more fees for postgraduate courses.

Labour’s policy on tuition fees in the last parliament was always unclear. In their respective leadership campaigns, both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls suggested they preferred a graduate tax. During the fees debate in parliament the Labour position was simply that it opposed what the coalition was proposing and then after months and months of uncertainty and internal wrangling over the feasibility of a graduate tax, the manifesto finally opted for a reduction to £6,000. In opposition, Labour should have had an easy time criticising the coalition on tuition fees, but without a clear and compelling alternative it always felt like they did not exploit that advantage. Liam Byrne was impressive as the shadow minister for higher and further education. He engaged thoughtfully with the sector and seemed prepared to think about the wider challenges for universities beyond the headlines generated by tuition fees. When the Times Higher Education magazine polled academics just before the 2015 election, nearly 46 per cent cited they would back the Labour party. Byrne’s robust and evidence based approach will have been a large contributor to that. However, it was not clear that the thoughtfulness demonstrated by the shadow minister made its way into the Labour manifesto on higher education.

So against this backdrop, and with a strong body of opinion that higher education funding is already unsustainable and wider questions about regulation of the university system there will be some pressure to look at the question of tuition fees once again. Speaking at a post-election briefing hosted by Pearson and the Financial Times this morning, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and formerly head of the Number 10 policy unit in the Blair years, suggested that a further increase in the fee cap would be likely this parliament. He went on to say, that it appeared the government really only listens to the Russell Group of universities and a number of their vice-chancellors have already gone on record as saying that the cap should increase further.

Whatever the new government might be thinking, Labour needs to be more thoughtful than simply arguing against whatever might be proposed. Labour’s approach needs to consider the interplay between schools, further and higher education policy, and the contribution that employers can make toward both funding and appropriately contributing to curriculum and assessment. There needs to be a credible position on funding, but that should not just focus solely on full time undergraduates. There is a crisis in part-time funding, and the postgraduate system is also under pressure and shows signs of being woefully underrepresented by those from non-traditional and working-class backgrounds, these all need to be taken into account.

The Labour party has much to be proud of for the way it oversaw a significant rise in students from the poorest background going to university and the development of a sustainable footing for British universities to compete with the best of the world during their time in government. But with new pressures ahead to find a sustainable funding model, the same level of thought needs to be given to universities once again.

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