Higher education is one of the nation’s success stories. Universities are transforming students’ lives, developing our skilled workforce, creating jobs and prosperity. So the stakes are high with the government’s review of post-18 education funding in England.
Tuition fees have been a political battleground since the last election. It might be politically opportunistic to cut tuition fee levels, but cuts to university funding would damage the student experience, hitting the most disadvantaged the hardest, unless government fills the funding gap.
That’s why the government is right to step back and commission a review of the evidence rather than make a knee-jerk policy change in response to political pressure.
It is fair that graduates contribute towards the cost of their education. Graduates earn on average £9,500 a year more than those not going to university and gain a host of other benefits including better health and more fulfilling jobs.
The current loan repayment system means that those graduates who earn less in their lifetime pay the least for their university education. Many of these graduates take on vital public service roles in nursing, teaching and social work. Repayments are fixed no matter the size of the loan and are written off after 30 years.
While the current system isn’t perfect, it has allowed universities to invest in high quality teaching, widening access, student support and state-of-the-art facilities. UK universities are the destination of choice for students from across the world.
The review must seek to avoid a return to the days of underfunding, crumbling buildings, crowded lecture halls and a limit to student numbers that puts an arbitrary cap on aspiration.
The idea of charging different fee levels by subject is riddled with difficulty and risk. At worst, this could lead to students from poorer backgrounds choosing cheaper courses, with more expensive courses the domain of the wealthier elite. This would seriously undermine the progress made by universities on social mobility for those students least likely to progress into higher education.
But the review brings opportunities as well. The government is right to consider how we can improve opportunities for technical education, meeting the skills needs of employers. Universities are central to meeting this demand. Degree apprenticeships are growing, and a significant proportion of courses at UK universities already have a technical element.
Employer demand for graduate-level skills is growing faster than for intermediate and lower-level skills, so pathways to good high-skilled jobs will be essential to the UK’s economic competitiveness post-Brexit.
The perception of academic versus technical qualifications does not match the reality of our economy and labour market. Employers want graduates with a mix of academic qualifications and technical skills. Take, for example, Silicon Valley which is one of the biggest recruiters of liberal arts graduates because of their creativity, communications and analysis skills, as well as their technical knowhow.
It is good news that the review is addressing the question of flexible learning and access to higher education as a mature student. There is an opportunity to reverse the sharp decline in part-time and mature study and create a system that encourages flexible learning at all stage of life.
Further positive news is the intention of the review to address the challenge of meeting living costs while at university. It is essential that no student is denied a university education because they cannot afford daily living costs. Injecting new money into the system to pay for maintenance grants for students most in need of support should be high on the review’s agenda.
The review’s focus should be to ensure that universities have the right support to play their full role in driving social mobility and delivering the skills graduates the economy needs. This review is an opportunity for good policy, based on sound evidence, to triumph.