£6.5k fees: a compromise to please no one?

BBC Radio 4 reported this morning a leak from the current Augar Review of Post-18 Education Funding. They claimed that a ‘source’ had supported a report in The Times last week that the review would propose that tuition fees should be capped at £6,500 and the “shortfall would be made up by capping student numbers”. 

For starters, the way this is worded makes no sense as capping numbers would only make funding shortfall worse, not better because of loss of economies of scale. I put this down to the BBC’s over-simplified description.

More worryingly, this would be a disaster for any course costing more to run. That’s any STEM courses, specialist courses with a small intake, high-quality courses where the teaching is especially engaged and with low staff-student ratios, courses with lots of students from non-traditional backgrounds, and so on. In order words, it would undermine a damaging proportion of what is best about English higher education. 

Even for arts courses it would place greater pressure on unis to pass course costs to students for materials. The National Union of Students did excellent research in 2012 showing huge hidden costs across many courses, such as thousands of pounds for artists materials, for example.

A £6,500 cap would be a way of incentivising unis only to offer badly taught courses in subjects where the skills shortage is lowest.

To solve the shortfall for STEM subjects, the Government would be forced to top up funding through a teaching grant for particular prescribed subjects. Unless this extra funding is sufficiently generous – i.e. it allows universities to subsidise their overheads – they will still have an incentive not to offer as many of those courses. And even if the top-up were enough, it would still be subject to political control and adequate funding would be impossible to sustain.

These proposals would be a triple whammy for disadvantaged students:

  1. The student number cap (which BBC couldn’t confirm with their source) would hit them by limiting places. That means sharp-elbowed, richer or otherwise privileged students get to front of queue.
  2. Universities would have no money to support their access activities like outreach, bursaries and other support intended to help non-traditional students into and through higher education.
  3. This proposal does nothing to address the main problem of debt for students (as opposed to the Governments financial problems or universities’), which is to do with living costs while studying. This, of course, isn’t just a problem for disadvantaged students, but for almost all students and the reason why student disquiet prompted Theresa May to set up this review in the first place.

I could have said it’s a quadruple whammy for disadvantaged students, because it does nothing to address the collapse of part-time and mature study, which are an especially effective way of opening access to higher education to non-traditional students. However, like student living costs, that’s a wider problem too – one that desperately needs to be solved for sake of students and UK’s skills shortages.

Ultimately, a £6,500 cap doesn’t even help the Government financially anyway. The way student loans are accounted, this would just dump more cost in the deficit, although the imminent (or should I say ‘impending’)  review of accounting arrangements by the Office for National Statistics may change this.

These proposals wouldn’t even be a win politically. The only graduates who would benefit would be those who end up earning most, who might end up paying back less. Most graduates wouldn’t see their repayments change – not the amount, nor how long they make them. This would be a thoroughly anti-progressive approach to the problem.

Even in terms of the political optics, this proposals isn’t sufficiently helpful to students to seem good enough. Indeed, it would just draw attention to how much better Labour’s offer to stop tuition fees altogether appears to be.

Fortunately, this proposal is just a leak and it is unlikely to be much like what finally appears. (The interim report is due in January.) There are too many clever heads on Augar’s team to let this be the true shape of their report (I hope).

I suspect this may be a DfE leak either (a) to prepare the ground for something bad, but less bad, (b) to run ideas up the flagpole, or (c) to create reasons to chuck the Augar Report altogether if they don’t like it.

When I say DfE leak, we may be seeing an internecine battle between HE and FE in the Department. The HE officials may be leaking the worst excesses of mooted proposals in order to goad the HE sector into putting up an opposition, which they’ve been pretty poor at over the last few months. HE officials, right up the the Universities Minister, might well be trying to regain ground versus the effective and worthy campaign that FE sector has waged in support of a better deal for them.

We all (universities, government, students, employers, and the whole of the UK) need much better ideas than this.

With that in mind, I have written a paper with a quite different approach to HE funding that will be published by the Higher Education Policy Institute later this month – watch this space.

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