Should University Tuition Fees either be reduced to £6,500 as some think a Tory working group might suggest or even abolished at Jeremy Corbyn hinted at during the last election campaign? Whatever happen, it is true that ever since Labour introduced fees in 1997 they have been a source of debate and controversy.
The hike to £9,000 by the Coalition didn’t stop the number of eighteen year olds flocking to higher education and the removal of maintenance grants also didn’t seem to make much of a different in numbers applying. Even punitive interest rates of more than six per cent haven’t proved a deterrent to would-be graduates.
Now it appears the government might be re-thinking their policy on fees and recognising the fact that arts and humanities students are paying more for their degree courses than universities are spending on their education.
When the hike in fees to £9,000 was proposed, I suggested a fee of around £6,500 might be more appropriate, with the government topping up the cost of STEM courses to encourage students to study those subjects, if there were going to be fees at all. I am less certain that is the direction to go now. Reintroducing a cap on numbers that would inevitably follow government intervention in the fee market would risk disadvantaging those with the least social capital to game the system. When the number of university places were limited, fewer teenagers for disadvantaged backgrounds went to university than at present.
I recall the late Prof. Halsey once saying that the gap in higher education entry rates between different groups would only be reduced once all middle class children that wanted to go to university were able to do so and there were still places available. Reintroducing a cap on places might seriously affect the opportunities for higher education in some communities.
However, there is evidence that attending a university and studying some subjects in the arts and humanities categories doesn’t bring significant financial benefits and many graduates don’t work in occupations that either pay well or use their graduate skills. Nevertheless, the alternative for the government might be having to pay out similar levels of cash, if youth unemployment rates increased and present undergraduate frozen out of higher education swelled the ranks of the unemployed. That would have a direct effect on government expenditure, unlike tuition fees that both have the possibility of clawing some of the expenditure back and also having a less direct effect upon government accounts.
Now that might be a risk worth taking in a tight labour market, and where some would-be undergraduates could be channeled into apprenticeships at a lower cost to the government. But, it would undoubtedly come at a price with regard to social mobility. Such a price might not be worth paying, especially if there is a downturn in the economy.
Better, to try to make degrees more beneficial for society while recognising that some courses may be high quality, but will lack high earning capacity. Such is the nature of higher education.