Cutting the cost of higher education wins few votes

Here in the UK we are in the first week into our first conservative government for 18 years. What can our European colleagues possibly learn from the political pledges that have led up to this and what are the early predications for tertiary higher education in UK? If we start by looking at the party manifestos we can get a sense of party/electorate priorities for Higher Education and possible developments in the UK and beyond over next five years.

Interestingly the Conservative manifesto gave little indication of how the higher education funding issues will be tackled but the party has pledged to lift the cap on university places and introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. Whilst Labour, who suffered a dramatic defeat, had sworn to reduce university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year – this was clearly not a vote winner. The decimated Liberal Democrats (reduced to just eight seats) made no explicit claims with respect to Higher Education, focusing on secondary school (11-18year olds education). Whilst the wonderfully aspiration Green Party promised to abolish tuition fees and cancel student debt issued by the Student Loans Company along with the elimination of national benchmark tests for school children and league tables. The controversial UK Independence Party (returning one MP but taking 4 million votes) also focused on the removal of tuition fees but only for students taking approved degrees in science, medicine, technology, engineering and maths on condition that they practise and work and pay tax in the UK for five years after graduation, they also rather alarmingly but not unsurprisingly pledged to charge students from the EU to pay the same fee rates as international students (£14 000+). In the context of this party it is important to note that with an in/out referendum on Europe coming, perhaps as soon as May 2016 this party will need to re-group as their state of heath will be crucial in determining the outcome of the vote. Their single seat should not be taken as a metric for their popularity as they won 13% of the votes in the general election (compared with only 3% in 2010).  Across the English borders the triumphant Scottish National Party pledged to maintain lack of tuition fees at Scottish universities, and offer financial support in grants and loans to students and Plaid Cymru (Wales) promised not to support any further increases in tuition fees for higher education students, and to seek the abolition of tuition fees as and when public finances allow.

Early predictions suggest that we may see a small rise in tuition fees, in line with inflation. Without any clear party majority in the House of Commons a steep rise in fees is unlikely given all other significant party manifestos commit to a fee reduction. Also, an increase above £9,000 simply increases the proportion of loans that will not be paid. This may stave off fee aspirations of continental institutions. However an increase in fees would take the financial pressure off HE institutions and that could result in a decrease in the demand for government funding.

Something that did not really emerge in the electoral campaigns was the repayment terms for student loans, apart from the lovely Greens tearing up the receipt, predictions of tougher terms are starting to emerge. In the former coalition government the liberal democrats had worked to get a commitment raising the payment threshold above the current £21000, this now seems unlikely in a Tory government. Finally what is fairly certain is that ministers will be making increasing demands on universities to demonstrate where the tuition fees are actually going and what students are getting in return. This is likely to results in more metrics, more league tables and more discussion around the how university courses are publically supported.

Clare Milsom

Clare Milsom

Assistant Academic Registrar, Liverpool John Moores University

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