Tuition fees: the beginning of the end?

By Ben Sladden

It’s been a hectic few days for tuition fees, and the future of the charges suddenly feels more uncertain than at any time since their rise to £9,000 per year in 2011. Over the past week or two:

  • UCAS figures published this week show that university applications have fallen by 4%,
  • A Times Higher Education Survey (THE) highlights that one in three university vice-chancellors surveyed back scrapping fees,
  • Lord Andrew Adonis, who helped introduce tuition fees in the 1990s, publicly called for fees to be scrapped,
  • And Angela Rayner, Shadow Education Secretary, said Labour’s “ambition” was to write off all student debt, which would cost £100 billion.

Almost every student will experience the existential crisis that the burdens of tuition fees beset upon them. “Is it all worth it?” we ask ourselves. “Will I ever be able to pay off my debts? What am I doing here?”

The concept of tuition-free university, however, seems almost unfathomable nowadays for most. We are aware of the wave of free tuition that the ‘baby boomers’ before us rode upon, whereas the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now tells us that most of us will ride on a graduate-debt wave of over £50,000. That’s an expensive wave.

But with Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in the general election bringing into focus the prospect of a tuition-free Britain, the national debate has shifted dramatically. With Government ministers past and present now telling us that there must be a rethink on tuition, there is an appearance of a paradigm shift: is the ground shifting beneath our feet?

UCAS figures this week have shown that university applications have fallen by 4% – a drop of 25,000.

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, outlined on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that it is Labour’s “ambition” to eviscerate all outstanding student debt, conceding that this could cost over £100 billion.  Ms Rayner went on to say: “We will not announce that we’re doing it unless we can afford to do that.”

Angela Rayner, Shadow Education Secretary /  Jason Lock Photography: Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

In response, Conservative MP Luke Hall said: “Labour are making shambolic promises to spend £100 billion extra, without any idea of how to fund it, that could only be paid through higher taxes on families.”

Meanwhile, Lord Adonis, the architect behind tuition fees under Tony Blair’s government in the 1990s – which began at £1,000 a year in 1998 and rose £3,000 from 2006 –  has called for fees to be scrapped, describing them as his “Frankenstein’s monster”. He said that the 6.1% interest rates being charged on student debts are “indefensible”, and that the scale of debt and interest rates is “about as bad a political gambit as you could imagine”.

“The only question,” Lord Adonis continued, “is whether they are abolished entirely or whether cross-party support can be built to keep fees to between £1,000 and £3,000, as per their introduction 13 years ago.”

Lord Adonis told the BBC: “Can you seriously see the Conservatives going into the next election with fees at £10,000, interest rates at 7% and debts at £60,000?”.

A THE report this week showed that one in three university vice-chancellors surveyed back Labour’s proposals to scrap fees. The same survey highlighted that nearly half of English vice-chancellors surveyed believe that the current status quo is “unsustainable”.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, Professor Keith Burnett, told THE: “If we let it carry on I think that it will result in a decreasing political consensus for the present system”.

“You can see it rotting quickly”, the Sheffield VC added.

However, university vice-chancellors were less confident that the current levels of funding universities receive would be sustained if Labour’s plans were to be carried out: a whopping 84% of vice-chancellors doubted universities would be able to make up the shortfall with public funding.

The debate around tuition fees has not been confined to the Labour Party, however: following Labour’s promises to scrap fees, Angela Rayner’s comments, and reports by the IFS about mounting student debt hitting the poorest students hardest, debate in the Conservative party has in turn been sparked.

The First Secretary of State, Damian Green – a Conservative – called for a “national conversation” on tuition, floating the prospect of a tax on graduates rather than the current system of national loans, which the majority of graduates never fully pay off. Green outlined how this was crucial to target younger voters – the demographic which traditionally yields low levels of support for the Conservatives.

The architect behind tuition fees under Tony Blair’s government in the 1990s, Lord Adonis, has called for fees to be scrapped, describing them as his “Frankenstein’s monster”.

This is turn provoked a backlash within Conservative Party ranks, with Michael Gove and Jo Johnson, the Universities’ Minister, swiftly rushing to the defence of fees.

Johnson outlined in the Guardian the view that tuition fees allow the government to reconcile its three policy objectives for undergraduate higher education: to reduce inequality, to fund institutions on a level which facilitates global competitiveness, and also to share the cost “between the individual student benefitting from a graduate earnings premium and taxpayers in general, most of whom will not have attended university.”

Johnson said: “The fact that some loans never get fully repaid is a deliberate subsidy for the lowest-earning graduates, not a symptom of a broken student finance system”. Johnson went on to cite the “paradox” that fees improve access to higher education.

However, UCAS figures this week have shown that university applications have fallen by 4% – a drop of 25,000. The UCAS report shows that for Black and Minority Ethnic applicants there has been a fall in applications by 9%, on top of a decrease from prospective mature students by 16%.

Tuition fees have increased to £9,250 this year following inflation, and with levels of inflation near 3%, they will almost certainly continue on the upward creeping trajectory.

Lord Andrew Adonis, who introduced fees under Tony Blair / Photography: Michael Walter/Troika via Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

The Conservative Education Secretary Justine Greening said: “I think the debate has revolved around what’s the best way to enable access to our universities.”

However, Greening went on to say: “I really do feel that the Labour party should come clean to young people about the consequences of its no-fees policy.

“They should be frank with people that what they’ve said in the run-up to the election about effectively writing off student debt was a false promise.”

The University and College Union (UCU) General Secretary Sally Hunt, said: “Successive governments’ efforts to transfer the bill for higher education teaching onto graduates have created unsustainable levels of debt, with students from low and middle-income backgrounds being hit the hardest by the repayment burden.

“Politicians of all stripes are now recognising that the complex issue of student funding must be revisited. UCU believes that the time has come for a key beneficiary of higher education, business, to pay its fair share of the cost.”

What is clear is that Labour’s policy to scrap fees has led to political shockwaves in Westminster on both sides of the political divide, as well as in the offices of senior university administrators up-and-down the country, with many questioning whether we will continue with the status quo on university funding.

Political pundits on all sides of the political spectrum concede that the chances of a Labour government in power after the next general election are appearing increasingly probable. The latest YouGov poll puts Labour on 46% to the Conservatives’ 38% – a gap of eight percentage points.

Even if the Conservatives are to stay in power for the foreseeable future, the backlash against fees the general election campaign has reinvigorated amongst those opposed to the deepening marketisation of higher education has made it clear that concessions on fees may have to be made for the sake of the Conservatives’ political prospects.

The ground may very well be shifting beneath our feet.

What are your experiences of the current levels of tuition fees? If you would like to anonymously share your experiences or thoughts, drop a line to: news.features@palatinate.org.uk  

Photograph: Durham University

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