During their recent party conference, Labour reaffirmed their promise to remove tuition fees. At an (excellent) Million Plus and NUS event I attended, the audience and fellow panellists quizzed Gordon Marsden, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills on what this would mean for universities. Marsden confirmed two further elements: that Labour were committed to not reintroducing student number caps and that the costing of providing free tuition fees for all was based off 2017 student numbers. Clarifying in response to an audience member, Marsden stated that this commitment would remain even if student numbers were to increase.
The question about what would happen ‘if’ student numbers increased was posed in a speculative way. But thanks to information on demographics and levels of participation in higher education, we know what will happen to student numbers in the short to medium term future. HEPI’s Demand for Higher Education to 2030 report forecast, based on conservative estimates, that we will need 300,000 more places in higher education by 2030.
It is fair for the opposition party to not be thinking as far ahead as 2030; their focus is on winning a majority in the immediate future and policies to see them through a term in government. However, this issue will need addressing before we reach 2030. Just based on the number of 18-year olds in the population, student numbers will rapidly increase from 2021, exceeding 2017 levels by 2022.
That’s without taking into account increased levels of participation in HE. Participation in higher education has increased consistently over the years and only last week it was announced that the number of young people entering higher education had exceeded Blair’s 50% target. There is good reason to assume to these participation levels will continue to climb by at least the same levels in the coming years.
The combination of these two elements takes us to the prediction of 300,000 more places required by 2030. In their last manifesto in 2017 the cost of removing tuition fees was estimated to be £9.5 billion. Labour will need to carefully consider what these increased student numbers will mean for future costings.
Of course, there are various levers for political parties of all colours to pull in order to manage the costing of their approach to tuition fees. At the event, Marsden stated that the recent Office for National Statistics decision to more accurately reflect the way student loans appear in the national accounts would give them ‘more elasticity’ to deal with increasing student numbers. Similarly, the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies 2019 annual report on education spending in England stated that Labour’s policy is ‘significantly cheaper now as a result of the 2017 increase in the repayment threshold on student loans from £21,000 to £25,000.’ Nonetheless, rapidly increasing student numbers will require a proactive response to managing costs.
At the higher education fringe events I attended at the Labour party conference, I was struck by the shared commitment of the speakers to the power of higher education to be transformative. For this to be the case, all those who want to enter higher education and would benefit from it need to be given opportunity to do so. A cap on student numbers would restrict access, likely to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the Labour party prepares its manifesto for the inevitable upcoming election, I would urge them to take into consideration the fact that demand for HE will increase over the coming years. They must assess whether they can commit to both free tuition fees and no cap on student numbers in the long term.