Time to let tuition fees rise

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It’s time to raise tuition fees. The tuition fee freeze, in place since 2017, is an ineffective use of scarce government money. Worse, it’s a direct handout to the richest graduates of the future, paid for at the expense of other aspects of the contemporary education system. Let fees rise with inflation, and put the money into cutting the cost of living for actual current students.

The modern tuition fee system, where fees are only repaid on incomes over £25,000, means that the burden falls on the highest earning graduates, while for every other person the “debt” is written off after 30 years. As a result, increases or minor reductions to tuition fees make no practical difference during the lifetime of the majority of graduates.

Letting tuition fees rise with inflation. The Sutton trust estimates 81% of students will never repay their loan in full after last year’s threshold increase. So holding down tuition fees below inflation is a handout to the top fifth earning graduates. Worse, it’s a handout they will benefit from at the latest and traditionally most lucrative stages of their career. At a time when both major parties are committed to continued welfare cuts to keep a balanced budget, tuition free freezes costing £300 million per year are an indefensible use of financial firepower.

The value of the tuition fees has collapsed since the report in 2010 advocated for raised fees. Had the values of tuition fees not been eroded by inflation they would have increased to over 10,000 by 2015. Assuming the freeze continues into the near future, a degree in 2022 worth far less than a degree from 2012. As a result, the tuition fee freeze also leaves the first generation of students to pay £9000 facing larger real term debts than subsequent generations.

Spent in education, the money could be used to go towards restoring support to cut the cost of living for students, something almost every student can agree matters to them more than the prospect of distant loan repayments. Or it could go into raising the repayment threshold, delivering relief first and foremost to the lowest earning graduates. The petrol duty freeze which started in 2011 now costs the government £9 billion per year, and a similar tuition fee freeze will result in another growing fiscal black hole.

Obviously in a university with spending priorities as warped as Lancaster, which splashed out £50,000 on a giant screen and tens of millions in cosmetic campus improvements, asking students to hand over more cash might not go down well. But does anybody believe the University would put student services over vanity spending when funding shortfalls necessitate cutbacks?

Freezing or slashing tuition fees might seem like an obvious way to help students. But the reality of the system is that only the richest graduates will see the benefit, and only decades after the start of their careers. Instead we should let them stay at the same level in real terms, rising year on year to keep up with inflation. If the choice is between more money to be spent on higher education now, or on another year of repayment for a high earning graduate in 2037, I know which I would want as a student.

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