Why tuition fees will cost six times more than they save

The coalition promised to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. But reduced university participation and higher inflation mean we'll end up paying more.

In his first Spending Review as Chancellor, George Osborne announced that the government had rejected a graduate tax but would reform higher education funding in England, requiring better-off graduates to pay more. The aim was to "reduce considerably the contribution that general taxpayers make to higher education". The switch from the direct funding of universities to indirect funding via student loans also helped Osborne to reduce the structural deficit which he said would be eliminated by 2015.

Ministers wasted no time. By December, the direct funding of universities was cut by 40 per cent over three years. Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs voted through a three-fold increase in the maximum annual tuition fee that a university in England could charge, increasing the latter to £9,000. As a result, full-time students entering university for the first time in 2012 have been charged an average fee of £8,340 with a matching state-backed loan. Maintenance grants have increased marginally. For the first-time, part-time students can access fee (but not maintenance) loans although their course grants have been cut. All student loans will increase by RPI plus 3 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the number of students entering university fell by at least 30,000 in 2012 with a further, dramatic decline in part-time participation. Applications for 2013 offer a glimmer of hope that there may be a recovery. Even if student interest increases (not forgetting that the coalition has cut the total number of funded places by 25,000 but has yet to put any ceiling on private provider numbers) does Osborne’s assertion that this is a good deal for taxpayers still stand up?

In the second of a series of pamphlets on higher education funding, the university think-tank million+ and London Economics set out to examine the case. Are the changes to higher education funding in England cost-effective uses the latest information from the Labour Force Survey, the Funding Council, the Office of Fair Access, the Higher Education Statistics Agency and BIS, the department responsible for universities, to model the 2012 changes.

All in all, the Treasury can claim to have saved £1.666bn per student cohort. This is largely the result of the reduction in direct grant to universities but takes into account the eye-watering increase in the Resource and Accounting Budget charge (a calculation of the proportion of the loan value that is not expected to be repaid). The Office for Budget Responsibility has already estimated that the loan book will almost double to £9bn. We estimate that over a 30-year repayment period the taxpayer will write-off almost 40 per cent of the loans that students take out.

Once the loss to the Treasury of reduced participation (which in turn leads to reduced tax receipts) and the inflationary impact of higher tuition fees are taken into account, the short-term savings will be outweighed almost six and a half times by the long-term costs of the new system. 

Although the inflationary shock seems to have surprised the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, both the Consumer Price Index and the Retail Price Index will increase in the first three years of the introduction of higher fees. Not the most popular policy at the best of times, the government’s higher education reforms may lose their sheen even more if consumers work out that regulated rail fares, water bills and postage stamps will increase in part as a result of higher  fees. 

In spite of the cap on working-age benefits from April 2013, the Treasury will make additional payments of £42m and £163m on public sector and state pensions. The Treasury will also pick up the tab because a proportion of its own borrowing is linked to RPI. The government has issued £294bn in index-linked gilts. In 2012 alone it is estimated that the Treasury will pay an additional £655m in interest repayment arising from the tuition fee hike.

Ministers claim that the new funding regime has helped to avoid a further cut in funded student numbers and maintained university funding. In fact, institutional 'gains' will not be evenly distributed and stand to be wiped out completely if 42,000 fewer students are deterred from studying for a degree. There is also the real risk that the unit of resource will be reduced in universities which have done the most to open higher education to new generations of students.

The 2012 changes to university funding undoubtedly have the effect of reducing departmental expenditure. On paper, the reforms also reduce the structural deficit but mask the fact that the government will borrow more.

When all is done and dusted, the changes to university funding in England are an accountancy measure. In economic terms, it’s much harder to see how Osborne’s higher education promise to taxpayers will stack up in the long-term.


Pam Tatlow is chief executive of the university think-tank million+. The research was undertaken by Dr Gavan Conlon, an expert in HE finance and partner at London Economics

Demonstrators hold placards as they gather before the start of a student rally in central London on November 21, 2012 against an increase in university tuition fees. Photograph: Getty Images.
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State