£7,500 tuition fees plan faces Brexit delay

Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent
@seanjcoughlanon Twitter

Image source, Getty Images

The review of university tuition fees in England has been caught in a Brexit gridlock - and might be delayed until May or later, according to sources.

The government-commissioned review of student finance is expected to call for a cut in fees, with the figure of £7,500 now being floated.

The review will send a tough message to universities about value for money.

But further education and skills are expected to be given much more support, including easier access to loans.

University leaders are braced for a recommendation to cut fees from the review chaired by Philip Augar, with private expectations that the current £9,250 will be cut to about £7,500, rather than the £6,500 first suggested.

But it seems increasingly likely that the all-consuming politics and economic uncertainty of Brexit have pushed back the review.

Funding uncertainty

There are also claims of significant differences in what 10 Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Education want from the shake-up of fees.

According to sources, a headline cut in fees is seen as important for the prime minister's office - described as being the "retail offer" needed to respond to Labour in a general election.

Universities are anxious about whether any cut in fees will be fully replaced by direct funding - and this, according to sources, is part of the Brexit-related delay.

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Image caption,
Theresa May commissioned the review to find better value for money for students

The Treasury does not want to commit to extra direct funding while there is such uncertainty about future public finances.

But at the same time, the Department for Education is reluctant to go ahead with a cut in students' fees until it is clear how that income could be replaced.

The debate is said to be "stuck on the roundabout" - and even when the Augar review publishes its findings, there could be delays before the government responds with any decision.

This might not be until the autumn or later - in a political calendar full of uncertainties about budgets, elections and leaders.

However, other senior university figures say the prime minister might want to push ahead with changing fees as soon as Brexit has been achieved, as a way of showing the government still has a grip on domestic policy.

Vocational courses

There are suggestions that the DfE has been fighting a rearguard action over reducing fees - against more sceptical voices who want to put pressure on what they see as expensive fees, expensive vice-chancellors and low-value courses.

This week Education Secretary Damian Hinds spoke in defence of the current fees system, saying there was no evidence it deterred disadvantaged youngsters.

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But universities are expecting this to be a challenging review for them, which will want to rebalance funding and political focus towards further education, adult education and vocational skills.

This is likely to mean more financial support for further education colleges and access to loans for vocational students, with more funding expected through the spending review if not the Augar review process.

The aim is to make technical education a much more attractive option.

But Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of universities, said: "It is high time colleges received proper support, but it makes no sense to do this by punishing university students.

"Why take aim at a national asset? Diminishing our higher education sector through reduced funding would be an act of self-harm."

Value for money

Universities seem likely to face tough questions about value for money and whether students should be funded to study courses which give them low financial returns.

Ideas have been floated for limiting student numbers - such as not allowing grants for students below three D grades.

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But this suggestion, considered and discarded by the previous fees review a decade ago, would raise accusations of adversely affecting new universities, some with already fragile finances, who are doing the most work in social mobility.

There could be more scrutiny of university spending on widening access to disadvantaged groups, currently costing £860m per year, with suggestions of a more centralised approach.

Another big factor influencing the review is the accounting decision of the Office for National Statistics to add £12bn of the cost of student finance to the deficit.

This is said to have forcefully "concentrated minds" on the real cost of fees and loans.

The return of maintenance grants for students from low-income families is also under consideration - and there has been pressure for a reduction in interest charges on loan repayments.

Long grass

There are also arguments that when the review is so strongly linked to Theresa May, any change at the top could see it disappearing into the long grass.

Charles Heymann, a higher education consultant who formerly worked at the DfE, says: "It wouldn't be the first education review to end up gathering dust on Whitehall shelves.

"Brexit means ministers have limited political bandwidth, legislative space or civil service capacity to push any major new domestic programme.

"The final report will no doubt be well-evidenced, well-argued and compelling - but it's at the mercy of political forces well beyond its control. It's just not clear whether it will form the basis of radical, long-term tertiary education reform or whether it is dead on arrival."