A guest blog from Alan Palmer, Head of Policy and Research at MillionPlus.

Johnny Rich’s paper for HEPI on a graduate levy to fund higher education benefits from being much-needed new thinking in the debate about how to fund our university system. The current approach places the burden of repayment heavily on the student after graduation. The repayment burden on a generation that is struggling with the cost of housing and squeezed real incomes is one that needs addressing. Any of the tweaks leaked from the Augar review currently appear to be heading down the track of complex arrangement due to the original constraints in the terms of reference. Arguably, those terms of reference gave the panel very little space to think radically.

For far too long, the debates have avoided the third leg of the Dearing model – that of an employer contribution. For sure, employers will always say that they contribute to higher education through the tax system but as major beneficiaries of a highly skilled graduate workforce, it is surely right to consider whether this support is could be harnessed more effectively. The apprenticeship levy, despite some of its significant shortcomings, is proof of concept that employers can be persuaded to invest collectively in skills development. The ideas in Johnny’s paper clearly need further thought, but he must be applauded for challenging so directly what some may see as a missing piece of the contribution jigsaw. In particular, universities will wish to know how exactly how investment in teaching would flow to institutions if the resource for teaching is collected via tax and not taken on as a student debt, a key challenge for the graduate tax proposals of the past.

The paper also offers a vital critique of the conversation around access, which is too tilted towards the notion that success is about poorer students receiving an offer to study at Oxford or Cambridge. Widening participation and increasing access is about so much more than this. It is about supporting local and regional aspiration, and driving skills development. It must operate on a mass scale offering people of all ages a wide range of HE opportunities, not just for the benefit of a small number of individuals.

Universities – especially the modern universities we represent in MillionPlus – that provide places to a large number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and support them through their studies to successful graduation, delivering high quality HE often do this with less investment per student than some of the more selective institutions. Those modern universities are the universities that make the most impact on access and participation and the paper is right in suggesting they need greater recognition and support.