English tu­ition fees cut a ‘real con­cern’

Gov­ern­ment plans would pri­ori­tise STEM sub­jects at ex­pense of oth­ers, ex­perts tell John Mor­gan

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - John.mor­gan@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Moves to lower univer­sity fees and in­crease di­rect grants in science cour­ses, said to be un­der con­sid­er­a­tion within gov­ern­ment, would ben­e­fit high-earn­ing grad­u­ates but give the gov­ern­ment “more con­trol” to tar­get key sub­jects, ac­cord­ing to an In­sti­tute for Fis­cal Stud­ies re­searcher.

Mean­while, with the gov­ern­ment also said to be con­sid­er­ing vary­ing English univer­sity fees in line with grad­u­ate earn­ings, an ex­pert on such data warned that it would risk un­der­valu­ing key cour­ses such as nurs­ing.

The Sun­day Times re­ported on 17 Septem­ber that the chan­cel­lor, Philip Ham­mond, “is con­sid­er­ing slash­ing the an­nual tu­ition fee uni­ver­si­ties can charge to £7,500”.

The gov­ern­ment would “top up” that fee with a £1,500 grant for stu­dents in science and tech­nol­ogy cour­ses, it added. But such plans would amount to a dras­tic fund­ing cut for uni­ver­si­ties, par­tic­u­larly those with­out sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tions of science and tech­nol­ogy stu­dents.

Rais­ing the loan re­pay­ment thresh­old to £25,000 is also said to be un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the chan­cel­lor, as the gov­ern­ment seeks a way to win back younger vot­ers.

If re­ports are ac­cu­rate, Mr Ham­mond’s think­ing on the re­pay­ment thresh­old and grants for science sub­jects ap­pears to closely fol­low that of the In­sti­tute for Fis­cal Stud­ies in an in­flu­en­tial re­cent analysis of higher ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing.

In ad­di­tion, the Trea­sury is also said to be look­ing at plans to vary the fees charged by dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties ac­cord­ing to the ex­pected earn­ings of their grad­u­ates, po­ten­tially forc­ing some fur­ther be­low £7,500.

Any an­nounce­ment on changes to the fund­ing sys­tem could be in the Bud­get, to be held on 22 Novem­ber, but may be trailed at the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence on 1-4 Oc­to­ber.

Nick Hill­man, di­rec­tor of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute, said that The Sun­day Times story sug­gested “all sorts of pos­si­bil­i­ties – which may well be where the gov­ern­ment still is, given the con­fer­ence is still a cou­ple of weeks away and these things some­times get nailed down very late”. But some of the pos­si­bil­i­ties “would un­doubt­edly give real con­cern to uni­ver­si­ties”, he added.

The Depart­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion has gath­ered data on grad­u­ate earn­ings by univer­sity and course in its Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Ed­u­ca­tion Out­comes project, with the first, “ex­per­i­men­tal” batch of full data pub­lished in June. In any plan to link vari­able fee caps to uni­ver­si­ties’ grad­u­ate earn­ings, it is likely the gov­ern­ment would rely on the LEO data, which use the stu­dent co­hort that grad­u­ated in 2008-09.

Anna Vig­noles, pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, was one of the co-au­thors on a sep­a­rate re­search project, which in­cluded IFS re­searchers, look­ing at grad­u­ate earn­ings by univer­sity and course. “If you take the view, as some do, that the aim of higher ed­u­ca­tion is to make grad­u­ates em­ploy­able then you can de­fine qual­ity in terms of the added earn­ings and em­ploy­a­bil­ity,” she said. “Most would agree that higher ed­u­ca­tion has a big­ger pur­pose than that.”

Many in the sec­tor point out that the vari­a­tion between uni­ver­si­ties’ grad­u­ate earn­ings high­lighted by the LEO data re­flect a univer­sity’s ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion and re­gional

labour mar­ket, along with the prior at­tain­ment and so­cial back­ground of its stu­dents.

Pro­fes­sor Vig­noles said that al­though these fac­tors could be al­lowed for in a model us­ing LEO, an­other key ob­jec­tion “to us­ing earn­ings as a sin­gle mea­sure of qual­ity… is that we also need skills that may not be highly val­ued in the labour mar­ket”. She pointed out that “you could have a high-qual­ity course pro­duc­ing knowl­edge and skills that are not highly val­ued by the labour mar­ket”, cit­ing the ex­am­ple of nurs­ing.

Chris Belfield, a re­search econ­o­mist at the IFS and a co-au­thor on the re­cent fund­ing analysis, said that while the chan­cel­lor has not com­mit­ted to any changes, in gen­eral “re­duc­ing fees to £7,500 only ben­e­fits the high­est earn­ers as these are the only grad­u­ates who re­pay the loan in full”.

Such a move would re­duce the Trea­sury’s out­lay on loans. How­ever, Mr Belfield said that “if the lost fee in­come is re­placed with grants then the gov­ern­ment will be worse off in the long run (due to the lost re­pay­ments from high earn­ing grad­u­ates)” in a £7,500 fee sys­tem. But he added that “re­plac­ing fees (and loans) with grants does have the ben­e­fit that the gov­ern­ment has more con­trol over how these are tar­geted”.

The IFS re­port found that in the switch to £9,000 fees there were pro­por­tion­ally greater per-stu­dent in­come in­creases for class­room­based sub­jects than for more costly sub­jects in science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics. The IFS com­mented that the cur­rent sys­tem “does not give the gov­ern­ment much flex­i­bil­ity to di­rectly tar­get cour­ses or in­di­vid­u­als that have high value to so­ci­ety”.

Mr Ham­mond said this week that the cur­rent fund­ing sys­tem “does not re­flect” the higher costs of some sub­jects “in a way that nec­es­sar­ily in­cen­tivises uni­ver­si­ties to fo­cus on in­creas­ing their STEM teach­ing”.

Mr Belfield said: “The chan­cel­lor’s com­ments men­tioned fo­cus­ing ad­di­tional grant fund­ing on STEM­sub­jects which would seem to be in line with the gov­ern­ment ob­jec­tives to in­crease STEM stu­dent num­bers.” Rais­ing the re­pay­ment thresh­old “ben­e­fits mid­dle- and low-earn­ing grad­u­ates the most”, Mr Belfield added.

If Mr Ham­mond is fol­low­ing the IFS’ line of think­ing, he could also be con­sid­er­ing whether to re­verse a highly sig­nif­i­cant move made by pre­vi­ous chan­cel­lor Ge­orge Os­borne, and rein­tro­duce main­te­nance grants for the poor­est stu­dents, an op­tion viewed favourably in the IFS re­port.

Right for­mula? the gov­ern­ment wants to lower fees and pro­vide a grant of £1,500 for stu­dents in science and tech­nol­ogy cour­ses

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