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.

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.

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

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge