The (HE) world is waiting with bated breath for the Official Opposition’s position on undergraduate tuition fees in England. The only certainty is it won’t have to wait much longer, given the proximity of the election – and perhaps for only a few more hours.
Those close to the Labour Party say there will be a renewed commitment to reduce the tuition fee cap for full-time home and EU students at English institutions from £9,000 to £6,000. For example, Mark Leach of wonkhe tweeted yesterday: ‘Labour – looks like the deal has been done. It’s £6,000 fees. Paid for (so HE not losing difference between 6 and 9). Announcement Friday.’
Despite much scepticism from the sector who have grown to like the current system even more than they did when it was introduced, lower fees are a matter of political will above all. If a newly-elected Government had the votes in Parliament to make the change, they could do it. The last few years of no HEFCE teaching grant for many courses coupled with high fees could come to seem like a short-lived English experiment outside of the European mainstream.
The interesting question on the day of the announcement is not ‘will it work’ but ‘who will benefit’.
There are loud arguments that lower fees, on their own, do not benefit poorer students or poorer graduates. That is true but a lower fee cap may not be the whole story. Political parties generally like to keep something back for the day of an announcement so that a new policy does not go off at half-cock. Moreover, the potential source of revenue for a cut (pensions tax relief) is large. So it is possible that something else will be announced alongside a reduction in fees, such as more living-cost support for students from lower-income households (or a review in to part-time study or a consultation on earn-as-you-learn degrees or any number of other things).
Moreover, something largely missing from the debate so far is the fact that whoever benefits depends on who a cut in fees affects. There are four main options.
- Students newly enrolling this autumn.
- Or all students from this autumn onwards. In other words, all home and EU students in their first year, second year, third year and fourth year. That would leave one single cohort – those at university between 2012 and 2015 – paying £9,000 fees for each and every year of their study, which could be deemed unfair.
- Or, given the usual lead-in times for new higher education policies, only those newly entering higher education in the next application round (for 2016/17 entry). This seems unlikely on electoral grounds, as people still at school generally don’t have the vote and so it wouldn’t help Labour much in the election.
- Or everyone who has ever paid £9,000 fees. The retrospective costs of that could be high in public spending terms but it would cement and almost certainly increase the Labour’s lead among students.
In response to comments from HEPI, Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, said yesterday that the focus on Labour’s position on fees should not detract from the ‘Tories’ Europe stance, fiscal path + giant debt write off, as risks to HE‘. He has a point and we will be returning to all these issues in due course.