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The parties can't ignore the looming student finance crisis

With further cuts to higher education and 40 per cent of student loans unlikely to be repaid, the parties need to agree on a sustainable funding system.

Demonstrators chant slogans during a student rally against rises in tuition fees. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Osborne announced this morning that seven government departments have already agreed to further spending cuts in 2015-16. The business department was not among these ‘early settlers’, although most in the higher education sector expect major cuts to be coming their way.

In the last Spending Review, universities were spared significant reductions because their burden of deficit reduction was met by much higher tuition fees for future graduates. Having taken this controversial decision, the government has relatively little room for further large cuts in higher education spending, without potentially damaging a sector that is critical to our future prosperity.

Against this background, IPPR’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (which reports on 10 June) will recommend a number of short term measures to help universities get through the next Spending Review while ensuring that they remain well placed to support Britain’s economic and social renewal as we enter the 2020s.

The government should start by protecting the cash ring-fence around the science and research budget, which implies real term reductions, but on a manageable scale. It should also protect funding for widening participation, which goes to universities to recruit and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. To find the resources for these measures, the government should hold steady the proportion of 18-21 year olds going to university on full cost courses, releasing between £1.5bn and £3bn over the next seven years because of a natural decline in the numbers of 18-year-olds in the population.

Universities should also take some of the cost cutting strain by freezing the ‘teaching grant’ in cash terms, alongside a freeze in the maximum tuition fee at £9,000, until at least 2017-18. Conversely, to enable institutions to raise more fee income, international students should be removed from the government’s net migration target.

In order to continue to expand higher education opportunities during this period of fiscal restraint, the Commission will argue that the government should create a new £5,000 ‘fee-only degree’ for students who live at home and/or work part-time. Students would not be eligible for maintenance grants or loans but would pay a lower tuition fee. This would allow an expansion of student places because of the very low up front cost.

The package of savings identified by the Commission could help the sector get through the Spending Review but there is still a long-term funding challenge facing universities. The government underestimated the amount of money that will repaid in loans by future graduates. It first predicted that 30 per cent of the total loans advanced would not be repaid but our Commission estimates the figure is more likely to be 40 per cent, eventually producing a black hole that could be as big as £1bn.

This means that all parties will need to propose ways of reforming the student funding system in their manifestos that will be sustainable in the long-term. The IPPR Commission has modeled a number of options for reform. One option is to try to recoup more money through the existing system, such as by increasing the rate of interest paid by the highest earning graduates. Another option proposed by the Labour Party and others is bringing the fee cap down to £6,000. This cuts long term costs but produces a short term funding gap (we estimate £1.67 bn) which Labour has pledged to fill in part from an increase in corporation tax.

Another widely canvassed option is to introduce a graduate tax. A tax of 2p in the pound paid by graduates through the tax system once they have left university is economically feasible but it bumps straight up against government accounting rules (set by the ONS and not by politicians). These currently score all fee loans as cash transactions that are ‘off balance sheet’ in the public accounts. When the loan becomes a tax, the fee outlay has to appear ‘on balance sheet’ as government spending. This means that, unless accounting rules could be changed (which most experts agree is unlikely), introducing a graduate tax would technically add around £7bn to the deficit.

Politicians might have thought that student funding had been put to bed as a difficult issue in the run-up to the next general election. They need to think again. With the likelihood of another hung parliament the parties will need to agree on a sustainable long term funding system for our universities.

Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR. The final report of IPPR’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education will be published on Monday 10 June.