Leader: University tuition fees and the common good

We do too little to help the poorest ascend the education escalator to a life of more opportunity.

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When the Conservative-led coalition trebled university tuition fees to £9,000 a year from 2012, the intention was to create a market in higher education. David Willetts, then universities minister, predicted that institutions would only charge the maximum amount in “exceptional circumstances”. He was wrong: almost all universities (not only the elite Russell Group) have done so.

The result is that students in England now graduate with average debts of £50,800, at a time when real wages are stagnant and we have a housing crisis. At the 2017 general election, Labour’s pledge to end tuition fees was popular (even if the British Election Study has since suggested that there was no significant increase in youth turnout).

Theresa May was humbled in the election, losing the Tory parliamentary majority. Her government has now launched the fourth government review of university finance since 1997. In her speech on 19 February, the Prime Minister correctly observed that English students face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”.

But Mrs May pre-emptively rejected Labour’s policy of abolition. This was a defensible choice. The ideal of a free system, which recognises higher education as a public good, is a noble one. But at £11bn a year, the price of abolishing fees is high (no policy in Labour’s 2017 manifesto would have cost more). And as the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, has noted, academic research shows that early-years investment makes the greatest difference to life chances. Once children enter secondary or higher education, the attainment gap between the richest and poorest is far more stubborn.

The abolition of fees would also benefit high-earning graduates the most, as well as forcing those who do not attend university to pay through their taxes for those who do. Since debts are written off after 30 years, poorer graduates currently do not pay back the full amount. The present system is, in effect, a graduate tax.

Though in her speech Mrs May promised no headline cut in fees, she hinted at the introduction of lower fees for humanities and social science degrees. Graduates in subjects such as medicine, dentistry, engineering and technology earn significantly more than their counterparts. Yet a genuine market in higher education would risk harming social mobility by deterring poorer students from applying for the most expensive courses. This is not desirable.

The government would be wiser to commit to restoring maintenance grants. A system that forces the poorest students to incur the highest debts (an average of £57,000) is indefensible. And though the total number of students from low-income backgrounds has continued to rise, the number studying part-time has fallen by 56 per cent since the trebling of fees (“I plead guilty,” Mr Willetts has said).

Britain’s universities are one of its greatest strengths. However, we do too little to help the poorest ascend the education escalator to a life of more opportunity. A troubled government must not tilt the odds yet further against them through unwanted and dogmatic marketisation. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia