The clearest higher education policy of this election campaign is Labour’s commitment to reduce the full-time undergraduate tuition fee cap from £9,000 to £6,000 and to raise the maximum maintenance grant by £400 a year alongside. It is a clear pitch to students (and their parents). Polling among students suggests it might be working.
It is not HEPI’s role, with a few hours to go until the polling stations open, to oppose or support any policy. On the one hand, Labour’s approach would clearly provide a little more cash-in-hand to students and ease the repayment burden on middle-aged graduates in well-paid roles by ending their repayment obligations earlier. On the other hand, it could make it harder to offer more student places or protect other parts of the BIS budget, as the cost of each undergraduate place would be higher (though note Labour have committed to fund the change in full through changes to pensions tax relief and reducing tax avoidance).
It is, however, HEPI’s role to try and understand what the policy might mean for students and institutions after the election should there be a Labour-led government. There are currently a number of important unknowns, which will only become clear later on. They include:
–Will fees be fixed at £6,000 or go up in line with inflation (or some other index) afterwards – as the old £3,000 fees did but the £9,000 fees have not?
–Will other changes be made alongside the reduction in fees, such as changes to the student loan repayment threshold, as a way of recovering more of the student loan book more quickly?
–Will the commitment to make up the shortfall in funding for institutions from reducing fees last for the short term, the medium term or the long term?
The other parties have been vaguer on higher education than the Opposition, as was shown over the weekend when senior Lib Dems and senior Conservatives both refused to say whether the £9,000 fee cap will remain £9,000 after the election. Moreover, the HEPI General Election Higher Education Wall of Shame highlights problems with the higher education commitments in nine different parties’ manifestos.
But it is still worth noting that even the comparative clarity offered in Labour’s manifesto leaves some important questions to be answered during the post-election spending review.