ONE OF THE last acts of the Tory Government was to increase university tuition fees before Parliament shut down for the General Election.
A Higher Education Bill was one of the casualties of Theresa May’s decision to hold a cut-and-run election. It had included a measure to make increases in university tuition fees subject to improvements in university teaching. However, this link will now not come in until 2020-21 – leaving universities free to increase their fees in line with inflation each academic year until then.
Already, students starting their undergraduate courses in September 2017 will have to pay £9,250 in tuition fees. Most students take out student loans to help them pay these high costs – which have traditionally had very low interest rates and which do not need to be paid back until the student finds paid work after graduating. However, in a nasty double whammy, just as the fees go up, so the interest rates on these loans are going up to. The interest rate on loans taken out this year is 4.6% – this autumn’s new students will be tied to a 6.1% interest rate.
Higher tuition fees are in line with the Conservative view of education. The Tories believe that if students have to pay for attending university, they will want to make sure they get value for money. Students will go to the institutions which offer the best teaching, they say – and this will keep teaching standards at a high quality. The “market” will keep teaching at a high standard.
Opponents of the market approach say that the relationship between students and their courses is not a true market place. When students are choosing which university to go to, they have to take into account factors such as where the university is located (many students live in the family home while they do their degrees). Also, although most universities offer courses in the same broad academic fields, in fact the courses can be very different from each other – so students have a very narrow choice in terms of where they can join the precise course they want to follow.
That argument is likely to rage on for some years yet – but in the meantime the actual cost of university teaching is stable. All that has changed is that the cost of higher education has been transferred from public spending to private debt – and individual students are now having to pay the extra costs of loan charges. At least the banks are happy…