Theresa May tuition fees speech

Theresa May University fees review attacked from all quarters for being “a big backwards step.”

Theresa May today acknowledges the electorally toxic policy of making the England’s higher education system the most expensive in the world.

“We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world,” the Prime Minister will admit. – Though according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England has overtaken the US, where states are trying to reduce the cost of higher education and now actually has the most expensive university education in the world.

And in the closest she has come to acknowledging that the Conservatives should not have scrapped student grants enabling people from poorer backgrounds to access University education, Theresa May will confess that making universities accessible to students of all backgrounds “is not made easier by a funding system which leaves students from the lowest-income households bearing the highest levels of debt”. 

But if the aim is to win over critics of the Tories’ education policies, Theresa May has already been accused of delaying reforms of the escalating tuition fee hikes her government originally imposed, and instead creating a system that could price poorer students out of certain subjects. Figures in higher education, unions, and even her own MP’s warned that her reforms sound unworkable.

Many pointed out today that Theresa May was in the cabinet that opened Universities to market forces, trebled tuition fees and abolished grants for poorer students, so essentially she is reviewing policies she voted for.

– A year long review was batting the problem on for over a year while another generation of students are facing mounting debts. The average UK undergraduate student leaves uni £54,000 in debt.

Students have voiced their opinion in the recent General Election, with the majority of 18-24 year olds opting to vote Labour.

So Theresa May is to announce a year long review of higher education to report in early 2019. She vows the review “will examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed.” 

With an independent chair and panel, it is set to review student funding including fees, as well as as student loan repayments. The influential Commons Treasury Select Committee recently slammed the increasingly high interest rates – currently 6.1% – on student loans were “questionable”.

Her new Education Secretary Damian Hinds trailed the review on the weekend, with proposals including differentiating how much fees universities can charge for different courses, with arts and humanity degrees becoming cheaper as there is less earnings potential taking them.

However he refused to be drawn on reducing fees and bringing back grants for poorer students – as his predecessor, Justine Greening, who Theresa May sacked as Education Secretary is reported to have wanted to do to help poorer students access universities again. Students from families with annual incomes of £25,000 or less had received a full grant of £3,387 a year. Recent studies have found people increasingly put off university by the fees which have rocketed to £9,250 per year.

“The thing that really matters from my perspective is social mobility, and making sure we don’t end up with a system where young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds feel like they ought to do one of the cheaper degrees, rather than doing the degree they actually want that will unlock their potential in the future,” Greening warned yesterday.

Former Labour Education Minister Lord Adonis made the same point on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think if you started imposing a penalty for studying some of the toughest courses there are to study – medicine, engineering, science – this would be a big backwards step.

“We need more engineers and scientists in our community, we don’t need fewer of them at the moment so I don’t support that.”

The Labour peer said Britain was making itself less competitive by going in the opposite direction of other countries with free or cheaper university education. Adonis said no more time should be wasted and fees should be just cut to £3,000 a year. He blamed the Tories allowing fees to treble for making universities “extremely bloated” with ridiculous salaries for the top management.

In Wales, fees are up to £9,000 though there are plans for higher levels of maintenance support. In Northern Ireland, fees are up to £4,030, while in Scotland, there are no fees for Scottish students.

Germany has now joined many European countries where University education is free, like it once was in the UK.

It was hoped that Theresa May would respond to Jeremy Corbyn’s vow to scrap university tuition fees which have rocketed to £9,250 under the Conservatives, by announcing a reduction across tuition fees.

Earlier this month the Treasury was reported to have given their blessing for university fees to be cut by a third – as low as £6,000 a year. So there were expectations that the Prime Minister would attempt to woo younger voters and their parents with a reduction in tuition fees. This could be offset by the natural easing of the ever increasing student debts that have to be written off every year, so did not trouble her Treasury department too much.

Divisions on easing access to University have become exposed – perhaps why Theresa May is setting up a year long review, rather than tackling the crisis her party created now – Lord Adonis tweeted today: “Review imploding at birth – No 10, Treasury and DfE (Department for Education) at odds on its very purpose. DfE in pocket of the vice-chancellors, who want no real change.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, warned that Theresa May was suggesting policies that would increase rather than decrease inequality of opportunity in Britain:

“Charging more for the courses that help graduates earn the most would put off students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from getting those same qualifications.

“So much for the prime minister’s talk about social mobility.”

“To make science and maths degrees more expensive flies in the face of what our economy’s going to need in the future. As part of our industrial strategy we need to ensure that we get more students on those courses.”

MORE: 

Union slams “devastating” school staff cuts as funding gap begins to bite

Theresa May embroiled in growing row over NHS for sale in post Brexit US trade deal

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