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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.