- This piece, which builds on an article and a supportive leader column in The Times today, has been kindly written for HEPI by John Cater, Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill University and the longest-serving head of a higher education institution in the UK.
- Register for next week’s HEPI webinar with Unite Students on what applicants expect of their higher education here.
- John Cater’s Whither Teacher Education and Training? (HEPI Report 95) is available here.
Nine years have passed since the Times Higher published a short piece on its Opinions page (‘Are “forgivable fees” the answer?’, THE, 9 October 2014).
That piece was written at a time when the Labour Party, trying to shape its manifesto for the 2015 election, was wrestling its approach to student and university funding, a wrestle that continues today. The suggestion was that the Party should sustain the fee at £9,000 (a figure that has barely moved in more than a decade) but that, for some at least, tuition fee debt should be written-off.
Fast-forward to 2023 and there is widespread industrial unrest in our hospitals and schools. Junior doctors are out on strike, nurses have rejected the latest pay offer and teachers’ unions have come to the same view. Changes to student loan repayment thresholds, with repayments for new graduates starting at £25,000 and continuing for forty years have, alongside rampant inflation, taken a real toll on ‘take-home’ pay. Fewer and fewer are applying to train to teach, despite ‘incentives’ of up to £30,000 whilst training, and those who do teach stay in the profession for less and less time. In parallel, applications for professional programmes in health and social care, medicine excepted, are heading south at an accelerating rate.
If you are paying a marginal tax rate of 29% [plus National Insurance] on earnings below the national average wage, in sectors where hybrid and ‘at home’ working are not on the table, it is hardly surprising that disaffection increases with every Student Loans Company statement. And the real cost to the state and to society of unfilled posts, a lack of subject specialists in schools, health and care workers on their knees, may more than match any perceived benefit to the Treasury.
Other countries, notably Australia, have managed this better. So, for key professions, perhaps we should think again? Nine years of nursing or teaching? No tuition fee debt. The dividend? Fewer vacancies in schools, hospitals and the community, and improved life chances for pupils and those in need of support and care. A greater sense of being part of a profession that is appreciated. And, because ‘take-home’ pay is boosted by the removal of the 29p tax rate, perhaps less industrial unrest.
And there are other positives too. Financial and housing pressures have clearly played a part in the collapse of the birth rate in the United Kingdom, down from over 813,000 in 2012 to just 682,000 eight years later, and the population imbalance between generations, ‘a python swallowing a pig’ in David Willetts’ parlance, grows, with consequences that are manifesting across Europe and could parallel those in China following the ‘one-child’ policy.
There are challenges. Should there be a threshold salary? Can you apply a policy solely to (certain) public sector professions? Is it possible to calculate the true socio-economic costs and benefits? But the target population, on low or mid-range salaries, dropping out of the NHS or the school workforce, are hardly likely to re-pay a large percentage of their student loan.
Perhaps we need to think again.
Forgivable fees anyone?