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The government is reportedly planning to slash tuition fees to £7500 per year in an attempt to restore its popularity with younger voters.
Chancellor Phillip Hammond has directed the treasury to look into a raft of packages intended to ease the financial burden on students. Reported initiatives include limiting the rate of interest students pay, and increasing the repayment threshold.
The Conservatives lost the 18-24 vote to Labour by 47% in June’s general election after Jeremy Corbyn pledged to bring the cost of tuition down to nothing and restore maintenance grants for disadvantaged students.
Tuition fees have been a long established political football since their introduction by Labour in 1998, their tripling under the Coalition government in 2010 and the continuing incremental increases that mean a first year student will be paying £9250.
Due to the nature of the current tuition fee system however, every reduction in the total individual cost of tertiary education will go first and foremost to the highest earning graduates; these are the only students who are able to pay off their loans in full.
And with the growing popularity of free higher education across the developed world with the policy making up a large part of the popularity of Bernie Sanders and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, this shift could mean that the current generation of British students could be the most indebted in the UK’s history.
The Sunday Times, which broke the news of the proposals, also reported that the government was looking into the inflammatory differentiation between courses in different disciplines, stating that some courses are considered not “value for money”.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, argued the proposals didn’t go far enough for students from a lower income background. “The Chancellor’s reported proposals don’t help many who most need support – that is why Labour will bring back maintenance grants for disadvantaged students as well as abolishing tuition fees entirely.”
Backing her, Shakira Martin, the newly elected President of the National Union of students said that although she welcomed commitments from any political party to lower the current level of tuition fees, “the government is not going far enough.”
“We also hold strong reservations about creating differential tiers of tuition fees which wrongfully imply a gulf of difference between institutions based on flawed metrics of quality.”
The idea that subjects within each university could be subject to differential pricing will be a controversial one inside the world of academia. Student satisfaction surveys focused on perceived value for money have shown a gulf between the various disciplines, with the Higher Education Policy Institute revealing that medicine students were on average twice as satisfied with the value for money of their course than literature students.
But opening up higher education to market forces not only between the universities but between departments within those universities would be a radical departure from the way universities currently operate, and could eventually prove to have far more of an impact than any headline reduction in tuition fees.