The debate about tuition fees has been brought back into the spotlight recently after official forecasts suggested that the write-off costs for student loans had reached 45 per cent of the £10bn in student loans made each year.
The proportion of graduates failing to pay back student loans is increasing at such a rate that the Treasury is approaching the point at which it will get zero financial reward from the government’s policy of tripling tuition fees to £9,000 a year. The current higher education funding system is now on the verge of being more expensive than the one it replaced. I hate to say “we told you so”, but, five years ago, we did just that.
In 2012, Nick Clegg made his famous non-apology for making, rather than breaking, his tuition fees pledge: “I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there’s no money around”. I well remember the chorus lined up against us to try and tell us that the tripling of tuition fees was about saving public money, that it was offering a lifeline to save the sector from financial instability. Nothing can now disguise the political opportunism of those who thrust this dogma upon us.
It is increasingly clear that forcing debt onto students as a way of funding universities is a failed experiment. The current model of university tuition fees funding higher education is neither fair nor sustainable. It is bad for students, bad for education and bad for the taxpayer.
The government successfully managed to remove 80 per cent of public funding for higher education, and shift this onto the shoulders of individuals, but it hasn’t saved any money at all. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility last year estimated that their scheme would in fact see £94 billion added to net public sector debt by the early 2030s. In February, a Public Accounts Committee report exposed an £80bn black hole in the student finance budget.
It is often touted that “record numbers” of students are now attending university as an example of the reforms’ success. The fact is that those numbers haven’t still haven’t recovered to the level of those recorded before the rise in tuition fees.
Even more concerning is that we have seen worrying declines in the level of non-traditional applicants, such as part time and mature students. Where you come from remains such a key factor in whether or not you go on to university, with young people from the most advantaged neighbourhoods in England being three times more likely to enter higher education those from the most disadvantaged.
Student debt doesn’t start and end at being able to pay your tuition fees either. Our own research has shown that half of undergraduate students regularly worry about meeting basic living expenses like rent and utility bills – not at all surprising when the weekly cost of student accommodation has doubled in 10 years. Bursaries, loans and grants remain frozen while the cost of living continues to rise.
And it doesn’t end when you’ve graduated either. Most students will still be paying back loans from their university days in their 40s and 50s, and many will never clear the debt, which will undoubtedly affect their chances of applying for a mortgage or saving for a pension. That would be exacerbated if the terms and conditions for repayments, which the government have consistently refused to protect in law, were subject to retrospective increases.
Taking an alternative recent proposal and doubling the monthly repayment for recent graduates – those likely to be struggling to save up for a mortgage or to pay for the rise in their rail season ticket – is hardly likely to be seen as fair in the eyes of voters either.
There are good reasons to view tuition fees as an experiment that has failed our country. There are far more palatable ways to lower the spiralling write off costs that do not exacerbate some of this country’s macroeconomic problems. As Gill Wyness and Richard Murphy have pointed out in response, if the government really wanted to lower the write-off charge, it could do so by lowering fees. Furthermore, if it wanted to reduce the RAB charge to zero, “it could similarly do so by going back to the pre-1998 system of having no fees at all”.
We also have some lessons to learn from abroad. In Germany this spring, it was decided that tuition fees will be scrapped once and for all – less than ten years since their introduction.
Renewed public debate about alternatives to tuition fees is certainly good news for students, but any proposals would have to be judged on their fairness and sustainability. The public will refuse to be conned by rebranding or marketing exercises.
Danny Alexander and David Willets have refused to rule out another hike in fees. Meanwhile, it’s been suggested that a Labour government could slash university tuition fees, paving the way for them to be abolished altogether.
What is clear is this: debt isn’t working and we need to move away from tuition fees. Our objections still stand – price tags for courses are not a good indication of quality or outcome, so we don’t believe a market in higher education serves students’ interests. We believe it is the rich who must pay their fair share. We need an approach that achieves long-term stability for the sector, and so that the taxpayers’ future liability is brought under control.
It’s time to admit that our funding system has fallen flat on its face. If higher education funding is to be truly fair and sustainable, we need a new deal for the next generation of students.
Toni Pearce is the President of the National Union of Students.