You have to admire their cheek.
Theresa May’s Conservative Government is leaking to the press a policy proposal from a review they commissioned which, if implemented as-is, is likely to prove catastrophic for universities in England, and in the rest of the UK by extension.
They are proposing to reverse the headline Higher Education policy decision of their ConDem forbears — the £9,000 (now £9,250) a year home undergraduate student fee in England, first introduced in 2012.
Raising fees from £6,500 to £9,000 was always socially regressive. It meant that poorer students would face a lifetime of student debt, whereas wealthy students could get a cheap loan for the duration of their study. The richest 10% avoid thousands of pounds in interest by paying upfront. Raising fees has put off a generation of mature students from re-entering education. The ‘heavy lifters of social mobility’, the post-92 universities, the Open University and Birkbeck College have been hardest hit by the Government policy changes.
But back in 2011, the universities were also supported by additional Government funding (so-called ‘block grants’). These were partially abolished at precisely the same time as the £9,000 fee was introduced: 100% abolished in Arts and Humanities, reduced in STEM subjects and not cut in Medicine. The abolition of the block grant was not accidental. It was intimately tied to the market idea of the student as consumer, so if students chose to move college or subject, money would flow accordingly. But this also means that if the Government resurrected the block grant, it would undermine its market policy.
Reducing the cost of education to students is a welcome move — like the staff union UCU, I believe in the principle that education should be free to all who can benefit — but the Government is floating the idea of cutting fees without replacing the additional financial support for the universities they cut in 2012.
This is going to hurt.
The detail of what is likely to be officially proposed seems to be being leaked to the press in order to gauge public reaction. It may change, as the proposals are ill-thought through, piecemeal and do little to address core issues of the tuition fee market. But if it is implemented as-is, this will be the most significant State intervention in Higher Education since 2011. This time the intervention will be extremely costly for the university sector.
So far, public comment appears to be directed against the allegedly poor value for money some university degrees offer. The Government appears to hope that they can rely on public anger against greedy vice chancellors, student dissatisfaction, or that favourite of the tabloid press, the Mickey Mouse Degree.
The boom before the bust
The Government is catching university senior managements on the hop.
The policy of fees-and-loans was welcomed by self-serving senior management groups who stood to benefit from higher fees. Many universities expanded aggressively on the premise that the golden goose would lay its eggs for ever.