In a speech later this afternoon in Derbyshire, the Prime Minister is set to announce an independent review of funding for over-18s further and higher education. Theresa May will challenge ‘outdated attitudes’ about technical educations compared to academic ones.
According to the new education secretary, Damian Hinds, May will recommend universities review the current policy of charging a flat fee for an undergraduate course. Instead, it will be recommended that universities charge a fee relative to the potential earnings once graduated.
The review that is expected to return its findings in early 2019 is set to consider all aspects of further and higher education funding, including how career guidance can be improved to provide students better information about career planning and potential future earnings.
May is set to say, “The competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged has simply not emerged. All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses. Three-year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course. We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”
This speech will be the Conservative party’s latest attempt to re-visit the hike in higher education it pushed through as part of the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2012, which pushed the average graduate debt up towards £50,000.
The 2012 increase for a maximum undergraduate fee for a 3-year course from £3,600 to £9,000, didn’t deter students from university study. Furthermore, universities have been heavily criticised for not investing the almost triple the revenue into the universities themselves but instead raising the salaries of vice-chancellors and senior staff.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hinds said, “I don’t think it’s as straightforward as just separating arts from sciences – and of course there’s great value to both arts degrees and science degrees. But I think there are different considerations for courses, There is the cost to put it on, there’s the return to the individual, and there’s also the returns to our economy and to society as a whole.”
Labour’s vastly improved performance among young voters in 2017’s General Election has been largely attributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Since then, the Government has promised to freeze the maximum fee at £9,250, scrapping their initially proposed increase.
Hinds has defended the policy of dividing the fees between the taxpayer and the student, criticising Labour’s pledge by describing it as ‘unaffordable’ as more and more students are entering higher education from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It’s been suggested the Prime Minister has been keen to introduce variable fees for university students for a long time. However, former special adviser Nick Timothy revealed former education secretary Justine Greening was instrumental in blocking May’s determined efforts. Earlier this year May replaced Greening with Hinds who is a far more fervent supporter of the tuition fee cuts.
Greening has confirmed there is a rift over the tuition fee issue within the Conservatives and therefore, Monday’s speech would be more talk than action as there would be no guarantee any changes would be passed through the Commons.
Greening also warned that entering into this phase of review will be challenging due to the difficulties of defining what constitutes a degree as ‘beneficial’ and also labelling different course with different potential earning brackets.
“The thing that really matters from my perspective is social mobility, and making sure we don’t end up with a system where young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds feel like they ought to do one of the cheaper degrees, rather than doing the degree they actually want that will unlock their potential in the future.”
The former education secretary’s sentiments seemed to echo the Labour shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner who argued that charging higher fees for courses that will put students in a position to earn the most would deter disadvantaged students from aspiring to complete these qualifications.
She said, “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. So much for the prime minister’s talk about social mobility. To make science and maths degrees more expensive flies in the face of what our economy’s going to need in the future. As part of our industrial strategy, we need to ensure that we get more students on those courses.”