May's plan for Tuition Fees: Between the Lines

By Campaign Agent Joe Perry

On Monday, in a speech to Derby College, Theresa May announced a major review of ‘tertiary’ or ‘post-secondary school’ education. Delivering on a promise in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto, May’s pledge came off the back of a series of recommendations by the Treasury Select Committee about changes to university tuition fees. Unsurprisingly, when the new Minister for Education (Damian Hinds) appeared on this Sunday’s episode of The Andrew Marr Show, debate largely centred around potential changes to tuition fees rather than the review in its entirety. Accordingly, the big headline-grabber of Hinds’ interview was his suggestion that the government was looking into ‘variable fees’ – tuition fees based on how expensive the course is to run. 

However, in the same episode of The Andrew Marr Show, Shadow Minister for Education Angela Rayner denounced the review as bureaucratic pencil-pushing. For Rayner, the Conservatives have conducted ‘three reviews of tuition fees in 12 months’ and another one would ‘not solve the problem’ of high interest rates and ‘tripling’ the prices. In a similar vein, BBC News’ Education Correspondent Sean Coughlan published an article entitled ‘will fees review [sic] make any difference?’ – a seemingly rhetorical question answered with an appropriate level of rhetoric – May is likely to shy away from the big questions and instead focus on ‘the lower-hanging fruit’: interest rates and maintenance grants. 

So, is this a case of bureaucratic pencil-pushing or a genuinely ‘major review’ of tertiary education? This brief article shall attempt to read between the lines of Theresa May’s Derby speech and in doing so help to inform readers on what the review could mean – be you a student, parent, or just a concerned citizen. 

Firstly, the most important point to make is that the Augar Review (as it shall probably be called when the reports findings are published by Philip Augar next year) is not specifically about tuition fees. In juxtaposition to the vast amount of media coverage, Theresa May’s speech largely centred around the relationship between technical education and higher education (universities). Beginning very clearly, May declared that the goal of her government’s education policy is to find the ‘right education for every child’. Here, May went on to describe the need to balance the provision of higher education with ‘practical and vocational’ teaching as means of meeting the needs of the ‘technological revolution’. 

In a very telling excerpt of her speech, May described the journeys of two imaginary children – one, an aspiring software engineer from a high performing private school and the other, a potential lawyer from a working-class family in a state school. For May, the individual’s education should fit the child – the software engineer should not be forced into going to university whilst the lawyer should be encouraged to pursue higher education. Here, one can see the overriding mission of the review is to readdress the balance between academic and technical education. 

As a consequence, one should not be too hopeful of significant changes to tuition fees because it is not the sole purpose of the report. Whilst it may be argued that such rhetoric is merely a show of political sleight-of-hand (emphasizing technical education as a potential distraction in the light of unfavourable recommendations to tuition fees, as well as planned nation-wide university strikes), however, such an assertation would be ignorant of May’s other reforms. The introduction of ‘T-Levels’, for example, showed a genuine dedication to improving technical education at secondary level. It would not be surprising if the Augar Report recommends similar technological qualifications for post-secondary institutions.

Having said this, the Prime Minister did devote a section to talking about reforms to Higher Education and much of what she said was important. Firstly, she defended the ideology behind charging students for university. Here, May plainly stated: ‘sharing the cost of university between taxpayers as a whole and the graduates who directly benefit from university study is a fair principle’. What does this mean in practice? Put simply, tuition fees are here to stay, albeit at the frozen rate of £9,250. 

Additionally, both the Prime Minister and Damian Hinds indicated that there may be changes to how the fees are decided. One route that has been discussed widely in the media is the concept of ‘variable fees’ – paying for a course based on what one gets out of it. Such an idea was toyed with last year when the government proposed linking the ‘Gold, Silver or Bronze’ TEF ranking of a university (Teaching Excellence Framework) to the amount the institution could charge in tuition fees. However, following widespread student protests and a vote in the House of Lords the proposals were soon dropped. 

Nevertheless, both Hinds and May have indicated that such an idea is back on the table. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, Hinds, for example, explicitly stated that the report shall be looking into ‘different aspects of pricing - the cost that it is to put on the course, the value that it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future’. Although, as Hinds rightly pointed out, the ‘review shall review’, such an idea does give some indication of the government’s current thinking. 

With regards to other important issues (such as the re-introduction of maintenance grants and changes to loan interest rates), May’s speech was unfortunately rather quiet. The only slither of indication was one section where May promised to examine ‘maintenance support for disadvantaged students’. Despite this, there was little indication of whether this would be in the form of different loans or grants and Damian Hinds’ dodged Marr’s question on the matter quite brilliantly. Furthermore, whilst the Treasury Select Committee recommended lowering interest rates on loan repayments, the Derby speech rendered us none the wiser. 

Whilst May’s statement did establish a number of parameters unfortunately it raised almost as many questions as it did answers. As a consequence, some have suggested that the review is a ‘political delaying tactic’ - allowing ministers to dodge ‘difficult questions about tuition fees by saying ‘I don't want to pre-empt the findings of the review’. Regardless, when the review is published at the start of next year there may be a number of changes to our education system. One must bear in mind, however, that tuition fees are only one piece of the puzzle that Augar and his colleagues are attempting to put together and it may take longer still to solve. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Number 10 @Flickr 

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