Theresa May has committed her Government to act on a controversial issue, which has topped the political agenda since the Blair era in one way or another – tuition fees.
Asking students to contribute towards the cost of their university education and by how much, has proved politically toxic for all those who’ve touched it (just ask Nick Clegg).
It has been a long-standing political football and the Conservative Government is now looking to reclaim this issue, announcing a welcome review of post-18 education and funding.
Labour dominated on this issue at the Snap General Election with a clear policy – scrapping the fees altogether. This was no doubt, a large part of Labour’s appeal to younger voter, but the Conservatives know all too well that it also resonated with parents and grandparents concerned about their children/ grandchildren’s futures – voters that are theirs to lose.
Tuition fee reforms have not created the competitive market originally envisaged, with nearly all universities choosing to charge students the maximum of £9250 a year. The Review will look at this issue again to find a more workable way forward, which truly delivers for both young people and the tax payer.
The Review is designed to address the fact that “we now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”. It also seeks to “ensure equality of access to an academic university education, which is not dependent on your background”, a hint that the Government may be willing to revisit maintenance grants.
In her speech announcing it, the Prime Minister also described the country’s “outdated attitude”, which favours academic over technical education – with technical education regarded as “something for other people’s children”. She noted the need to breakdown these “false boundaries” and create a system that works for all young people.
This Review is a bold move, particularly to admit that your party – and indeed a government that you were a key member of – created a policy that has failed to deliver. And, one that by all accounts was based on a “naive” assumption, as Nicky Morgan put it on the Today programme. The Prime Minister should be commended for that, and for having the guts to tackle such a controversial issue head on. Clearly ensuring equality of opportunity is an issue that Theresa May does genuinely care about.
However, as with many of this Government’s big, flagship announcements, it raised more questions than it answered.
Firstly, despite the focus on boosting technical education and ending our obsession with university, the Review does not cover funding for technical education post-18. As a result, many in the FE sector have suggested that the Government has failed to address the elephant in the room, if it is serious about creating parity of esteem.
Many commentators also became fixated on Damian Hinds’ notion of differential fees reflecting the value and benefits of a degree. For example, making courses like medicine and law, that provide young people with a clear and lucrative career path, cost more. This immediately raised questions about the potential impact on social mobility – a clear Government priority – with the idea that only those who could afford to pay more would be able to study these courses, making them out of reach for many. [Insert damaging headline here].
By wading in on tuition fees, the Conservatives also risk a repeat of what we saw during the Snap Election campaign, with the pledge to cap energy prices – stumbling on to Labour’s turf with a weaker, less popular proposal, already on the back foot.
The Prime Minister deserves credit for being willing to admit her own party’s mistakes but looking like Labour-lite is not going to win the Conservatives any friends and is likely to alienate others. It is therefore vital that this Review delivers credible alternatives and new ideas on this political hot potato.
Politics aside, what does this review mean for the HE sector?
Well more uncertainty for universities setting their budgets, no doubt more scrutiny of vice chancellor and other senior figures’ salaries and a focus on whether university courses are providing value for money for students.
There is also a real risk of being used as cannon fodder by the political parties, as they square off on this issue.
It is therefore more crucial than ever that universities get their messaging right, have a good story to tell and are getting out there telling it, to build a network of supporters, who value what they do and are willing to fight their corner.