Informed opinion suggests that the cerebral ,reformist former HE Minister Jo Johnson was sacked because he was unwilling to undertake the full scale review of tuition fees that the Prime Minister wanted . He saw the obvious pitfalls. Johnson is a canny political operator . Damian Hinds has no such reservations, which explains why he replaced Justine Greening, who largely shared Johnsons’ viewpoint . May has a habit of making up her mind, then looking around for evidence to back her view. The pattern is there, witness the last education Green paper. Both May and Hinds have already ruled out some possible ‘outcomes’ from this ‘independent’ Review.
So what about the Review?
First , the Prime Minister has basically said that our Higher Education system is one of the most expensive in the world and doesn’t provide value for money. Meanwhile, her Ministers are telling us how successful it is and how important it is to attract international students and to remain globally competitive. This is what’s called mixed messaging!
Secondly, this is a Review of not just HE tuition fees but all post 18 student funding, which has got lost in translation, partly because of the government’s own presentation.
Thirdly, the Review will take a year, and whatever it recommends is unlikely to happen in this Parliament with the next election in 2022. So expectations seem to have been raised , but they cant probably be met.
Fourthly, the government, though ostensibly not second guessing the Reviews conclusions, will not abolish tuition fees, and will be hard pressed to reduce them. The Prime Minister wishes to ensure that the students and public finances share the burden of the costs in some shape or form . Damian Hinds made it clear in interviews trailing the announcement, that the government continues to support the idea of graduates, as the main beneficiaries of higher education, contributing significantly to the cost of providing their degrees
Hinds also says the cost of degrees could be determined by three things: the cost to deliver, the return to the student and the economic value to the country means that that those degrees which are of most value to the individual and the economy will cost more-which could act as a disincentive and deter disadvantaged students from taking them . Few in the sector think that differentiated fees are a good idea. Many STEM subjects are expensive to teach ,but who wants them to become the preserve of more affluent students who feel confident they can afford them?
If students should be making more sophisticated economic choices by predicted salary return, then student demand for these “low-value” courses will surely drop, and in most cases become economically unviable for universities to offer, so you then have less choice of courses. It is also the case that current trends, whether its in Artificial Intelligence or the sciences ,more generally, is for a more joined up multi-disciplinary approach to meeting challenges and in driving innovation. Valuing courses anyway, through the lens of economic and employment returns , using some new metric would be a nightmare to design and administer and is unlikely to be backed by the sector. And, anyway, since when has a university education been just about studying an academic course?
As for the option of reducing the level of fees, London Economics estimates that if fees are reduced from £9,250 to £6,000 a year it would leave a £3 billion black hole in universities’ finances. In post -Brexit Britain would this really be feasible?
So what steps might help?
Introduce maintenance grants for poorer students, who currently have to take out bigger loans to cope with living costs would make sense.
Take a look at excessive interest rates. They are causing resentment. Because interest starts accruing on the £9,250-per-year ticket price during the course of study, the IFS estimates that students in England have added an additional £5,000 to their debt even before graduating
And what about part-time study? The main casualty of the current regime. Part-time undergraduate numbers have crashed since fees were trebled in the Cameron administration. . There has been a 56 per cent fall in part-time student enrolments to universities since 2010. This is bad for the economy and the skills gap. A flexible form of degree finance that could cover study of both academic and work-related subjects across a lifetime might answer this problem.