Theresa May’s proposed ‘independent’ review of HE & FE funding received huge media attention –wrongly being sold as a commitment to lower tuition fees – a more ‘sensible’ response than Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish them. In fact, there’ll be no definite proposals for a year and rather than having any independent status, the review will be by the Department of Education. Nevertheless, May’s announcement takes place in the context of huge support for Labour from young people, particularly current and future students, but it is also a response to the disastrous consequences of tripling tuition fees by the Tory-led Coalition.
It was intended that raising tuition fees would ‘price out’ large numbers of young people from HE. It was also assumed that only elite institutions would be able to get away with charging the full fees as there would be far less demand for the ‘products’ of less prestigious universities so school leavers would turn to vocational training, particularly apprenticeships. But of course, it hasn’t worked out like this because young people and their parents know that in most cases ‘vocational alternatives’ do not lead to secure employment. So, those who are qualified continue to apply for higher education in hopes of at least semi-professional employment, despite the debt entailed. As a result, 80% of degree providers have charged the full fee.
In addition to their failure to reduce numbers applying and thus restore university as an elitist institution, there are other issues for the government. Tuition fee debt stands at £100 billion with estimates showing that 80% will never be repaid, as graduates end up in ‘non-graduate’ employment on salaries barely beyond (sometimes even below) the repayment threshold. Some Tories have argued that this makes the current fee structure ‘progressive’ as nobody pays anything upfront. But unpaid student debt (technically) gets added to future National Debt and the Tories, like other Neo-Liberal ideologues must confront their own rhetoric about the National Debt being a burden on free market forces and the tax payer.
But the main problem for the Tories is the lack of support from younger voters – and with the government on the rocks over Brexit, a potential electoral defeat to Corbyn and Labour. Rather than reject the market model of HE though, their review will try and exploit its contradictions, encouraging students to invest in their own human capital on differently priced undergraduate courses. It’s no accident that the announcement of a review coincides with a UCU strike over pensions, which may extend into the exam period – while possible plans to reduce fees for ‘less expensive’ social science and humanities courses tap into legitimate student concern about having to pay £9250 fees plus maintenance for just a few hours of lectures/tutorials. There’ll also probably be moves to compress some courses into 2 years and into ‘cheaper’ FE.
The ball is now with Labour. The commitment to abolish tuition fees is without doubt one of its most significant commitments and the most important of its education policies. But funding this will require fiscal policies that go way beyond only borrowing for investment and much steeper income taxes for the better paid than those the Party currently proposes. The review period is an opportunity for reformers to advance alternative models of tertiary provision that build on primary and secondary general compulsory schooling with an entitlement to lifelong continuing adult further and higher education and training. Concomitantly, the rights of young people need to be advanced beyond simply defending the post-war model.
A National Education Service would thus be more than a National Schools Service that aims only to bring academies, free and perhaps private schools within local democratic authority. If it is not to be a mere rebadging of existing provision, a NES worthy of the name would establish specialised tertiary level learning in colleges and universities linked to research with provision both in and out of employment. This would be a clear successor to primary and secondary general education.