Day of reckoning for tuition fees?

Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWho should pay for university? And how much? The government is to launch a review of fees

The starting pistol for the review of university tuition fees in England will be fired early next week.

Or at least that's the latest claim in the political twisting and turning over one of the toughest domestic decisions facing a fragile government.

The last time Theresa May's review of fees seemed to be approaching, neither the education secretary Justine Greening nor the universities minister Jo Johnson seemed particularly enthusiastic - and within weeks both of them were out of their jobs.

The new team - Damian Hinds and Sam Gyimah - will know they have to deliver, with the prime minister and Mr Hinds expected to lead the charge.

As they head for the weekend TV studios, the next big question is what problem the fees review is trying to solve?

Fee freeze to stay

Is it trying to kill off a political problem - with middle England still unconvinced by young people leaving university with £50,000 in debts and interest rates up to 6.1%?

Or is it trying to find a fairer way of balancing the cost between student and taxpayer - and to support those who might currently be missing out, such as those in vocational training and those wanting to study part-time?

image copyrightEPA
image captionTheresa May said her review of fees would show: "We have listened and we have learned."

There are some outcomes that are predictable.

For instance, the freeze on annual fees at £9,250 is going to stretch further than this year.

You can't announce a review to show you are listening and then increase fees even more, so there will either be a long-term freeze or a big cut.

Lord Willetts, a former universities minister and author of A University Education, says the review could be politically "high risk".

The government can't "trump Corbyn", with Labour having already established its promise to scrap fees.

Lord Willetts argues that the current system is essentially a good model - it ensures that students do not have to pay up-front and it ensures universities the reliable funding that allows them to keep widening access.

Where he would make changes, he says, is to reduce interest rates and give students more financial support when they are studying.

'Reverse pupil premium'

This would also help parents who end up paying for their student children's living costs.

There have been suggestions - often attributed to the Treasury - that the review will consider varying the level of fees depending on the likely return in graduate earnings.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionApplications in England this year have fallen even below the slump that occurred when fees rose to £9,000

But Lord Willetts says this would become a "reverse pupil premium", concentrating more funding in the most prestigious universities and in courses that lead to the most lucrative careers.

A former Labour education secretary, Charles Clarke, says the review will need "absolute clarity of purpose", because it is such a complicated system with so many interlocking parts.

"No one seems to know what the aim of the reform in 2018 will be," he says.

Mr Clarke says that linking fees to the likely financial returns of specific courses would "significantly reduce fees for millions of students".

He backs cutting interest charges - and says that poorer students should have access to maintenance grants.

Help with living costs

In a theme that the current education secretary is likely to keep hearing, Mr Clarke also highlights the need to provide more support for students when they are studying.

He says there should be loans that cover the real living costs and that since students are adults, this shouldn't be dependent on parental income.

The former education secretary, Justine Greening, thinking more freely from the backbenches, wants maintenance grants reinstated and has raised concerns about the level of interest on student debts.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham and biographer of prime ministers, also wants a return of maintenance grants.

image copyrightEPA
image captionDamian Hinds faces calls for the review to be widened to include funding for vocational courses

He wants a cut in interest rates for loans, saying the current level "undermines the credibility of the whole scheme".

But he wants a clearer message that repayments from students are a form of graduate contribution and not a "debt".

There are also calls for the fees review to be much wider than academic study at university - and to look more broadly at support for post-18 students taking vocational courses.

image copyrightPA
image captionShould fees vary depending on how much students are likely to earn?

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, recently warned that taxpayers were currently expected to "lavishly furnish universities", when the real shortage was in vocational skills.

But universities face their own problems.

This year's Ucas application figures have been much worse than superficially they might have appeared.

Among applicants in England, the numbers are the lowest since at least 2009 - even below the slump that happened when fees trebled in 2012.

Changing places

There is also an emerging pattern of high status universities getting bigger and attracting more applicants, while others, often doing the hardest work in widening access, are seeing a collapse in student numbers and funding.

If universities were Monty Python characters, they would be like the knight who has his arms and legs chopped off - and says "It's only a flesh wound."

They never want to look like they are in trouble.

But behind their shiny prospectuses and fixed smiles, there are some university leaders who are seriously concerned about a review that can only bring them less money.

image copyrightAlamy
image captionThe dispute over whether tuition fees are fair has seen all parties switch sides

But this is about politics and this is a subject which has a remarkable track record for sudden switches.

It is easy to forget that in 2005 Theresa May was a shadow minister going into a general election with a Conservative manifesto promising to scrap all tuition fees.

In the previous year, it had been Labour that had been on the ropes over plans to increase fees to £3,000 per year.

In the general election, the shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, lead the Tory campaign to end fees.

He lost his seat to a youngster called Tim Farron and his education brief went to another newcomer, David Cameron.

Whatever happened to them?

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