The last few years have been difficult for everyone. A once in a century pandemic caused unrelenting damage to Britain’s economy, closed schools, severed relationships and saw many lose loved ones well before their time. One group who had a particularly rough time were students, who faced remote learning and a lack of resources while continuing to cough up £9,250 a year in tuition fees.
These sacrifices appear to have gone unnoticed, with The Sunday Times revealing last week that university chiefs are appealing to the government to increase tuition fees to £24,000. This would match what international students currently pay for courses at universities in England.
University leaders have argued that student fees have failed to keep up with inflation and have been frozen for a decade. This isn’t in dispute. Like every good and service, the cost will and should be subject to inflation, but an increase of over 150 per cent stenches of gluttony.
For over two years students have been compelled to study from home, watching vital lectures on their laptops and smart phones rather than in the lecture theatres they continued to pay thousands of pounds to access. Students were denied the opportunities to meet new people and make new friends; they were deprived of access to learning and sports facilities – all of which they continued to pay for.
Of course, none of this is the fault of the institutions themselves. These were decisions made at the heart of government. Notwithstanding it generates an air of dismissiveness and a sense that students are being punished for their sacrifice.
If the university bosses got their way a typical three-year degree would set the average student back nearly £75,000. I would challenge any vice-chancellor or leading professor to justify why a university course – any course – is worth even half of that. Speaking from my own experience of Higher Education, I would question if some courses were even worth the current rate of £9,250 a year.
The funding model must change. It is of course unsustainable to keep fees at their current levels indefinitely. But a near threefold increase in course fees would only disenfranchise underprivileged candidates from entering higher education. ‘The prospect of a huge financial commitment is especially likely to be off-putting for students from households in relative poverty,’ the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders warned on Sunday, as who would bear the brunt of a potential increase is yet to be established.
Would the government take on the additional £15,000 to ease financial pressures on students? This seems incredibly unlikely given the inflationary crisis and the economic commitments the government is expected to pledge to ease soaring fuel bills for families.
Would the government extend the period over which graduates repay their loans? This too is improbable bearing in mind that window is subject to increase by a decade next year, from 30 years to 40 years.
It seems the sole card left on the table would force the government to either lower the threshold at which a graduate begins to make repayments (currently £27,295/year) or increase the percentage of their income that is taken as a repayment (currently 9 per cent).
At a time of soaring inflation, it seems incredibly harsh to ask graduates just entering the job market to relinquish an even greater portion of their income to the state. Rather than a momentous rise in fees every decade, it seems a sensible compromise to link student fees to inflation. Perhaps that is what must be done.
It must also be noted that the Department of Education has earmarked £750 million of additional funding to support universities over the next three years. If institutions cannot begin to economise after three years of pandemic reduced costs and additional funding from government, perhaps they are not fit for purpose after all.