The UK has one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world; a topic ardently debated amongst students, parents, academics and politicians.
A wide ranging review was announced on Monday by the Prime Minister into university tuition fees. This review is to be welcomed and is certainly apt, but why is there so little optimism about it?
The media and academics have already picked up on just how complicated it may be to make changes to the university tuition system, and to answer questions such as how to make the system genuinely fairer, how quickly impactful change can be made, and how to cut some course fees without belittling certain subjects.
The Prime Minister highlighted that the system of variable tuition fees that was envisaged when the current system came into force has not become a reality, with the majority of universities charging the maximum fee for undergraduate courses. Interest rates on student debt repayment are of equal concern, with them being up to 6.1% at a time when the base rate is only 0.5%.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that average debt at graduation is £50,000, and the average interest accrued before graduation is £5,400.
One of the most debated options for change in the university system is the introduction of varied fees for different courses, depending on how much they cost to run and how much they are worth to the economy. There has been speculation that some universities might cut their fees for humanities and arts courses, which generally attract lower graduate earnings, than medicine or engineering.
There is a fear however that varied fees for different courses will result in poorer students applying for the cheaper courses, which have the lowest graduate earnings. Former Universities Minister David Willetts and former Education Secretary Justine Greening raised concerns on the varied course fee option, and think the review should concentrate on interest rates on student debt repayments. The Treasury Select Committee has also been vocal about high interest rates.
With the review scheduled to return its findings in early 2019, which by no means equates to immediate action or legislation, Labour MPs have suggested that the Government may be using delaying tactics to avoid difficult decisions on such an emotive debate, especially when they have no majority to implement any changes.
Having looked into just a few aspects of the review, it is difficult to foresee the Conservative Party coming to a consensus on how best to reduce tuition fees, let alone getting cross-party agreement. Public support for any changes to tuition fees will also be crucial. The Prime Minister has explicitly ruled out scrapping tuition fees altogether, and it also doesn’t look like there will be a dramatic cut to overall fees as part of this review. With the Labour Party’s policy to scrap tuition fees entirely being very popular with many young people, the Government will always be on the backfoot on the tuition fee policy debate.
Tuition fees aren’t the only issue embattling universities. There has been a huge amount of media attention around university Vice-Chancellor pay in recent months, and Vice-Chancellors are being pressured to justify their high pay whilst student debt is rising. This week has seen the start of a planned 14-day strike lasting until mid-March, the biggest university strike to take place to date, with lecturers walking out in protest over plans to downgrade their pensions.
Even if the Government’s review does address tuition fees in years to come, it seems unlikely it will be able to address all of the issues fairly without impacting another. And if it is a success, with Vice-Chancellor pay controversy and unrest over academics’ pensions, there are clearly still many more systemic issues within Universities at play that will need to be carefully considered.