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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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