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Scrapping tuition fees or scraping away the glue holding the sector together?

  • 11 May 2017
  • By Dr Diana Beech

Yesterday, footage emerged of John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, announcing that Labour will scrap tuition fees if the party wins the General Election on 8 June. Speaking in Mansfield two weeks ago, the Shadow Chancellor can be seen to introduce the idea of a national education service, which is ‘free at the point of need throughout life’. He confirmed that Labour’s idea ‘means scrapping tuition fees once and for all so we don’t burden our kids with debt for the future’. The commitment to reintroduce free higher education also appears in the leaked version of the Labour Party manifesto discussed in today’s newspapers.

This policy is undoubtedly intended to secure the student vote. A HEPI-YouthSight poll released just last week showed that more than half of students planning to vote in the General Election (53%) say tuition fees are a factor in deciding which party to support. The poll also showed Labour to be the students’ party of choice, with 40% of students regarding Labour as the best party to represent their interests.

Pledges to abolish tuition fees can nevertheless be risky business in politics. It didn’t work for Michael Howard in 2005 and it came back to bite Nick Clegg in 2010. In fact, the Liberal Democrats are still suffering from their broken promise to abolish tuition fees made before entering the Coalition Government in 2010. Not only did the party suffer considerable losses in the 2015 General Election, reducing the party’s seats from 57 to eight, but the HEPI-Youthsight poll reveals that today’s students have still not forgiven the party another two years later. The lasting legacy of the Liberal Democrats’ broken promise also likely explains why students remain cautious in the face of renewed pledges to scrap tuition fees: despite 55% of students that plan to vote in this Election saying they will do so in Labour’s favour, 50% still said they think Labour would not abolish fees and bring back grants if elected to office.

While students remain sceptical about political promises to abolish tuition fees, university management teams around the country are probably watching these pledges with trepidation. Many universities now charge the maximum fee limit, which is set to rise to £9,250 in the academic year 2017-18. Our universities have, therefore, become used to operating on models which rely on the current level of tuition fee income. In any reasonable divorce settlement, it is customary for the divorced partner to be awarded a settlement that will allow them to maintain the same standard of living to which they have become accustomed over the years. If UK universities were to find themselves suddenly separated by a future Labour government from the hard cash that they rely on, it is inevitable that they would expect the same levels of provision from the state to make up for their losses. With estimates for the cost of scrapping tuition fees somewhere in the range of £10 billion, it is difficult to see how a prospective Labour government would be able to provide for this without big tax rises or more debt.

Moreover, the risks to the sector of scrapping tuition fees are numerous:

  • Reduced tuition fee income could put high-cost degree courses in danger, like those in the Creative Arts, where the cost of resources often already exceeds existing teaching funds. This could endanger the smaller, specialist higher education providers powering our creative industries.
  • Less money to spend on provision central to the student experience but not necessarily to the act of teaching could see vital university services cut, such as counselling and mental health support. A HEPI report – The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health written by Poppy Brown – has called for increased funding and dedicated mental health action plans in universities. However, any cuts to institutional budgets would likely be felt first in these areas.
  • Scrapping tuition fees could also see student number controls brought back in England. If public money will be used to support students at English institutions, basic economics tell us it will be unfeasible for a future government to allow them to continue operating on the current ‘open doors’ policy.

Finally, any move to curtail university funds could be one small step towards separation in the sector, with a subset of universities looking more seriously at how they might break away from a reliance on state-funding in pursuit of increased private investment. The ‘Buckingham Question’, which could pave the way towards a British Ivy League, may well resurface its head and threaten the very notion of the UK’s single higher education system.

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