Expansion of the Higher Education sector is essential to the growth and innovation of our economy; we are investing in our country’s future workforce. In the run-up to May’s general election, the mainstream parties are relatively quiet on Higher Education policy, a theme which echoed through the party conferences last year.
When the coalition raised the price ceiling on tuition fees in 2012 it came with Lib-Dem-strings attached – the minimum repayment level was raised to £21,000. This condition, although seemingly well-intentioned, now means that the RAB charge, the percentage of debt which is written off due to the terms of repayment, is estimated to be around 45% (HEPI, 2014). Let’s take a second to contemplate this; 45% of funding will be written off after 30 years. This is perhaps great news for those students who will have debt written off but is this sustainable for our universities?
Of course it isn’t. This is hardly a revelation; it’s a simple, logical calculation which points to a gaping black hole in the sector’s finances. So if students, paying higher fees; universities, who will face funding issues and the taxpayer who will inevitably have to bail universities out aren’t winning, why aren’t we changing the policy today? Somehow the coalition has created a policy in which every party involved is losing out.
Perhaps it is because elections are rarely won on Higher Education policy, May’s general election is likely to be won on the economy and immigration policy. It would be political suicide for the Conservatives to admit that their policy is proving a disaster; the costs of admitting defeat outweigh the benefit of changing a policy which seems to have no simple solution.
Labour have been relatively quiet and noncommittal with a counterpunch, in a BBC Radio 4 interview this morning Ed Balls maintained his support for lowering the market cap to £6,000, much to the outrage of the Universities UK group. They highlight that £2bn a year would have to be ring-fenced to close the funding gap resultant from lowering the cap, a move which contradicts the current government’s narrative of austerity. The fact that Labour have been unbecoming on the issue is surprising because they have everything to gain from a high profile higher education policy; the potential to capture a share of the disillusioned Lib Dem voters from the 2010 general election.
The Liberal Democrats have also remained reserved on Higher Education policy, perhaps unsurprisingly considering their track record on the matter. They have opted to “review” the system upon graduation of the first affected cohort; a move which simultaneously side-steps any admittance of wrong-doing and evades committing to policy either way.
The maintaining the status quo is perhaps preferable because the problems of the current system will not bear fruit until the first £9,000 cohort’s 30-year repayment is upon us. By then it will be too late, we need a sound policy which will provide long-run stability and benefit students, universities and the taxpayer.
By Perry Scott, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.