In 2010 the newly formed Coalition government decided to increase university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000. Despite protests all over the country from students, the government pushed through the increase.The current Education Secretary Justine Greening has said that she supports increasing university tuition fees and Universities Minister Jo Johnson has recently published a report stating his desire to linking university tuition fee increases to better teaching. Not only will this not result in better teaching, the continued rise in tuition fees discourage people from pursuing a university education.
The rationale behind the increase in fees is that the increase would allow for excellent universities to charge more for the better teaching they provide. However there are few problems with this. Firstly, the goal of a government would be to create more elite universities but increasing fees would mean that only people who could afford to pay the fees for these great universities would attend them. This will surely narrow the pool of students for these top universities and will lead to entry requirements being reduced. I personally don’t think that exam results are the be all and end all but they are an important thing for universities in order to grade people according to academic ability. The government shares this view of grades and therefore the development I just outlined is a negative outcome.
The other main thing is how the government would ascertain which universities are allowed to charge the higher amount. The obvious thing that the government would point to is university rankings, but there are problems with this. If a university has a high ranking but average teaching will they be able to charge the higher amount? How much is a higher amount? Will this increase the amount of resources going to the university or will this just shift the cost onto students?
Here’s an example of universities who have already chosen to opt for higher fees. Durham University have said that the annual tuition fees for their degrees will be £9,250 starting academic year 2016/17. Durham is an excellent university so, even if we leave aside the argument about affordability, the logic put forward by people like Jo Johnson remains sound. However, Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln has also begun charging £9,250 per year, and this institution is no where near as good a university as Durham. By the Conservatives’ own free-market logic this justification doesn’t hold up.
Now let’s go back to affordability. The Conservatives are commodifying education so let’s put this concept in terms of a marketplace. People buy goods and services when they can afford them or they borrow money in order to purchase those goods and services. If someone needs to buy a car and has £10,000 they are unlikely to buy Ferrari, they would buy a car that they can afford. The whole point of capitalist economic systems is that consumers have freedom of choice. In university education, all the fees are around £9,000 and so people will either pay this amount or not. The former will either leave the person in debt or will only A 2011 report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies came to the following conclusion:
“We find robust evidence that a £1,000 increase in tuition fees reduces university participation by 3.9 percentage points, while a £1,000 increase in maintenance grants increases participation by 2.6 percentage points. These figures equate to an elasticity of –0.14 for fees and 0.18 for grants”
As the above quote states, additional costs resulted in fewer people attended university and additional grants increased the number of attendees. I can predict that some people will argue that the system doesn’t make you pay money back until you earn certain amount of money. My counter-point would be that perception matters, and if people perceive debt to be problem it doesn’t matter that they won’t pay it back up front. Further, the threshold for paying back university debts is £21,000, which is £5,500 lower than the national average salary. I would argue that people who go to university don’t expect to earn less than that the average national salary.
The Conservatives know that young people do not go out and vote, and those that do already don’t vote for them. In such a situation, it is a calculated manoeuvre that increasing tuition fees will not impact them electorally. The Tories cannot be allowed to bring in this increase as this will reduce social mobility and have a greater impact on poorer families. Labour need to stop fighting with each other and hold the government to account. Students already pay huge amounts in tuition fees and maintenance costs, and this is particularly challenging for students from poorer households and disabled students. The Tories have changed the discourse to be about how much the increase to tuition fees should be, rather than debating whether or not tuition fees should be abolished.