Protestors against the £9,000 tuition fees outside the University of London in 2010. Photo: Getty
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Student loans policy likely to cost more than the system it replaced – how could they be so wrong?

Tripling fees to £9,000 was a clever exercise in smoke and mirrors accounting. Students and universities are paying the price.

The latest estimate of the costs of the student loan system given by David Willetts, the Universities Minister, comes as no surprise. Both before and after the Coalition rushed through its reform of university funding in 2010, we warned in briefings to MPs that the government’s sums were wrong.

Willetts has now conceded that 45p in the pound of the money lent to students for fee and maintenance loans may never be repaid by graduates. This figure stands in sharp contrast to the Impact Assessment published by his own department of Business, Innovation and Skills. In June 2011 BIS claimed that the write-off would be between 28 and 32 per cent.

Using detailed modelling of the costs of the system undertaken by London Economics, we had no hesitation in providing evidence to the BIS Select Committee which challenged these assumptions. As it turned out the Committee’s MPs were rightly sceptical of the government’s forecasts.

It took until May 2013 for Willetts to throw in the towel and concede that the write-off might be 35p in the pound. By December 2013 an answer reported in Hansard confirmed that the BIS estimate had risen to 40p. Three months later this has increased yet again. It seems that Nick Clegg’s promise that the majority of students will never repay their loans is about to come true but it is hardly good news for taxpayers.

So is this all just an arid argument among economists? Behind all of these figures is a story which goes to the heart of the coalition’s fiscal policies and its belief that higher education should be opened to the market. Tripling fees to £9,000 was a clever exercise in smoke and mirrors accounting which removed direct funding of universities from the BIS departmental budget. Its primary aim was to help George Osborne eradicate the structural deficit by 2015. Lifting the fee cap was also accompanied by policies which favoured private providers which now benefit from double the amount of state-subsidised fee loans than were available under Labour even though they remain largely unregulated.

Unsurprisingly many younger students have opted into higher education even though fees have risen. Unless their parents enjoy considerable wealth, they have little choice but to take out a fee loan if they want to study for a degree. But 30,000 qualified students chose not to progress to university in 2012 and may never return to higher education. Critically participation by part-time and older students has melted away. This is a horrible waste of talent.

Ministers claimed that universities would be better off under their reforms – a claim that is now treated with a great deal of scepticism. By 2015 universities will have had to absorb three further years of cost-cutting with no inflation-proofing. The grant to the Higher Education Funding Council will fall by a further 9 per cent by the date of the election. The NUS is worried about maintenance grants not keeping pace with the cost of living.

Osborne’s response is to lift the cap on student numbers but not provide any additional resources. The idea is that universities will rise or fall according to how well they compete for additional students. Of course, this move will inevitably increase further the amount that taxpayers will have to write-off but there is little mention of this.

It is difficult to understand how or why the coalition got the costs of their higher education reforms so wrong for so long. The thousand dollar question which all political  parties now have to answer is just how they will fund universities in the future to deliver a system that is fair for students, graduates and taxpayers. It’s unlikely that a funding regime that costs 45p in the pound is the solution.

Pam Tatlow is Chief Executive of the university think-tank million+

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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