Abolish tuition fees?

When I wrote back in April about the iniquity of the hike in repayments rates on student fee debt to 6.1% hardly anyone noticed https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/debt-hike-for-teachers/ That’s the price you pay for being ahead of the game. Then came Labour’s abolish fees pledge during the general election and there is now a growing groundswell on the issue, further fuelled by the fall in applicant numbers reported by UCAS this week.

So far, few have tried to put the debate in even the wider education funding agenda, let along government funding policy as a whole. As I argued in my earlier piece, cutting student fees might mean losing or postponing some other project either in education or society more widely unless the funds can be generated from an increase in taxation somewhere else. There might also be the unintended, or I assume unintended, consequence of reducing further social mobility if the abolition of fees and their replacement with direct payment for university places by the government led to a cap on places. Those that could afford to pay for extra tuition might scoop the bulk of available places, leaving others less well-off to claim only any reserved places under government mandated schemes or unfashionable subjects in unpopular universities.

Earlier in the century there were schemes to help young people save for expenses like tuition fees so that they would not be the burden they now are seen to be. I am not sure what happened to them? It is interesting that the insurance market also never saw saving for tuition fees as a necessary product, presumably because parents with young children were seen as not having the level of disposable income to fund such schemes in advance. As I said in April, at the present time it would be more cost effective for families to increase their mortgages than to incur student debt in terms of current repayment levels.

The risk is that in the present political climate judgements will be made on votes to be won rather than sound economic or social policy. But, then fees were increased to £9,000 probably without much thought for either issue and certainly no rationale as to why a classroom subject would cost that sum to deliver. Anyway, the concern must be that a Conservative strategist sees abolishing fees as spiking Labour’s guns with young voters and so worth doing ahead of sorting out the mess with funding social care or even the NHS.

Although there are many worthy articles written about the rationality of government financing, in the end it comes down to plain old horse trading and what works politically. With the number of eighteen year olds set to fall, part-time students numbers already having been decimated and no EU students to pay for, the government could well explore a deal with universities of fees paid for home students, but higher full-cost fees for overseas and non-government funded students. The government could also rebalance the subject offering so as to demonstrate to Conservative voters that they have wiped out subject that shouldn’t be degrees and moved them into the new apprenticeship sector. That might play well with those that think there are too many students wasting three years at university. So, whether fees survive looks increasingly like a political decision based on electoral strategy and the date of the next general election.

 

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