Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Are ‘forgivable’ fees the answer?

  • 3 July 2023
  • By John Cater
  • 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?


  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Several various loan forgiveness programs have been tried by several USA states and have been found to have a marginal effect on student enrolments and employment in the targeted occupations

  2. hem ramlal says:

    I am an international student and had to pay over 15,000 british sterling pounds for tuition alone.I came to the UK with promises of accomodation but this was not kept.I had to stay at expensive hotels where my food,personal items were stolen on a regular basis.I was robbed at edgware underground station in London in February 2023.The police closed the file without looking at the CCTV.TFL erased the video of the event after a few days.And university staff who are on strike seems to direct their hostility towards me,as an older foreign student intent on learning.
    Needless to mention,I did not expect/bargain for any of the above.

  3. Gavin Moodie says:

    I have quickly skimmed more recent publications to find:

    ‘We find that the current loan forgiveness programs reduce shortages by less than one percent per year — far smaller than necessary to eliminate shortages. ‘

    Kulka, Amrita and McWeeny, Dennis, Rural Physician Shortages and Policy Intervention (December 12, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

    ‘We investigate the effects of a statewide program designed to increase the supply of teachers in designated “hard-to-staff” areas, such as special education, math, and science. Employing a difference-in-difference estimator we find that the loan forgiveness component of the program was effective, reducing mean attrition rates for middle and high school math and science teachers by 10.4 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively. We also find that the impact of loan forgiveness varied with the generosity of payments; when fully funded, the program reduced attrition of special education teachers by 12.3 percent, but did not have a statistically significant impact when funding was substantially reduced. A triple-difference estimate indicates that a one-time bonus program also had large effects, reducing the likelihood of teachers’ exit by as much as 32 percent in the short run. A back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis suggests that both the loan forgiveness and the bonus program were cost effective.’

    Feng, L., & Sass, T. R. (2018). The impact of incentives to recruit and retain teachers in “hard‐to‐staff” subjects. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 37(1), 112-135.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *