Getting rid of fees won't make a fair deal for students, but neither will keeping them as they areby Lucy Webster / August 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
With my third year of university on the horizon, I have spent two years engaged in the debate over student fees, which in recent weeks has returned to the mainstream, with the release of a new report on the government’s approach, and two Labour leadership candidates pledging free tuition at the point of delivery. I take a middle view, somewhere between those calling for free education and the current government’s elitist higher education policy.
Tertiary education should not be free. Unlike healthcare or basic education, it is a privilege and generates great rewards. But it should be fair, which means ensuring value for money and making it easier for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to afford. According to a new report from the Independent Commission on Fees, set up in 2012 to evaluate the impact of higher university tuition fees, this is far from the case. While some of the problems expected when the new fees were introduced have been avoided or mitigated, the government and the industry still have a lot to do.
Going to university weighs on someone’s mind from before they go until decades after they have graduated. Some 78 per cent of 16-18-year-olds are “very” or “fairly” concerned about the cost of living as a student, the commission found. Some 68 per cent are concerned about high tuition fees and 58 per cent are worried about having to repay student loans after their studies have finished.
They are right to worry; the Commission also found that many of today’s graduates will be paying off their debts until they are in their 50s, when they will likely have mortgages and their own children’s education to contend with. Despite this, the commission estimates that three-quarters of loans will not be resolved by the time they are written off 30 years after graduation, with the exchequer only recouping about 55 per cent of the money it is owed.
Things are only going to get worse. In last month’s Budget, George Osborne announced the scrapping of maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and a decision to allow tuition fees to increase in line with inflation, perhaps seeing them reach £10,000 a year by 2020. Students are going to have more and more debt.
It is not all bad news. The Commission, in conjunction with UCAS, found that the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education is greater than ever before. Yet last year this figure was still 2.5 times lower than for advantaged students. And poorer students are worst hit by the new changes; they will graduate with tens of thousands more pounds worth of debt than those whose parents can support them through their studies.
If the government can claim that its changes haven’t put 18 and 19-year-olds off from applying to university and studying a traditional three-year course (the figures have remained steady since 2010), it cannot say the same for part-time and mature students, numbers of whom have fallen by 48 and 10 per cent respectively.
The report warns that this decline is evidence of the threat the new fee regime poses to universities’ ability to promote social mobility. Part-time and mature students tend to have chosen these options because of a lack of funds; their falling numbers suggest that the very poorest students are being pushed out of higher education altogether.
Combined with the scrapping of maintenance grants, this is evidence of the regressive nature of the government’s changes to university funding. With a university education, often to post-graduate level, increasingly necessary for many professions, this is worrying. Therefore, warning that the effects of debt are not yet being felt and could cause unforeseen problems, the Commission is also calling for the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to investigate whether the current system is providing value for money.
For students, it certainly isn’t. For £9000 a year I get eight hours teaching over 23 weeks, and a short paragraph of feedback on my heavily researched, long essays. While the teaching at Warwick is undeniably of high quality, this isn’t much bang for my buck. It is no wonder that many students resent their high fees, especially those studying humanities and the arts, whose fees subsidise the more teaching-centric science and maths disciplines. These subjects also benefit from the most investment, from new buildings to business partnerships. Clearly, many students are not receiving the education they are paying for.
So what is to be done to make higher education fair and valuable? Most obviously, maintenance grants should be reinstated and more scholarships offered, thus boosting social mobility for the least privileged. And if fees are allowed to float upwards, students should only pay for what they are getting—which should encourage universities to provide a better education to all. Otherwise, universities will become places for those at the top to entrench their position without acquiring much knowledge in the process. Hardly what we want from institutions dedicated to progress.