Thursday, 17 October 2013

University tuition fees in England: we're not out of the woods yet

There's been quite a lot of head-scratching, and some quiet satisfaction in government circles, about the numbers of students now going into English Higher Education. Overall student numbers are now back to pretty much where they were before the introduction of much higher fees of £9,000 a year in 2012, even in the teeth of rising costs and debt going far beyond the impact of fees themselves. In some places, there's even been a rush to fill some courses as quickly as students could get their hands on them. There has also been a little bit more progress in the very slow business of widening participation amongst young people from less traditional university backgrounds.

So is the debate over, then? Were those of us who warned about spiralling costs and the difficulty of recruiting less well-off youngsters just wrong, just as we're supposed to have been wrong about macreconomic policy?

You won't be surprised to hear this blog issue a resounding cry of 'no'. For one thing, the amount of money the Government will never see back from this scheme is still going up (and up): that alone means that the whole settlement will have to be revised in the next Parliament. Next, as government successively withdraws support, these tuition fees won't in themselves be enough to plug the gap that inflation is leaving in university coffers: that's what's behind Oxford's call for even higher fees if more government support isn't forthcoming. And, lastly, there's no way of knowing how much progress we might have made attracting students from low income backgrounds if we had settled on a more generous system of financial support.

But all of that is to look only at the overall picture. Today it's important to point out another, and less obviously apparent, outcome of the Government's reform: the collapse in the number of part-time students.A new report from Universities UK shows that their numbers are deflating rapidly - down 40 per cent from just a couple of years ago. Given that they make up more than a quarter of the UK undergraduate population, that's some fall. And why has it happened? Because such students often are not eligible for tuition fee loans, making their courses unaffordable.

Everyone - employers, policy experts, universities, even Ministers - agree that lifelong learning and skills retraining are absolutely critical to our economic future. But we're throttling it if we focus only on 18-year-olds, and if we pour all our energy into the young (even though they need all the help they can get in this economic environment).

Yesterday we examined claims that the Government's economic plan has worked. It hasn't. Today we've looked at their Higher Education policies. They're looking a little better - but they're still pretty patchy and risky.

The lesson? Beware of politicians declaring victory.

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