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Post-18 Funding Review: Listen to Students or Waste Another Opportunity to Reform a Broken System

That Theresa May was 25 minutes late to the podium for the announcement of a year-long post-18 funding review this week was, in many ways, symbolic of everything that has gone wrong with the government’s recent approach to higher education policy.

This is the latest incarnation of a review initially presented in the 2017 Conservative manifesto as a tertiary education review and then, at Conservative party conference, as a review into higher education funding and student finance, and has belatedly appeared as a review into post-18 education and funding.

So what can we expect from this review, and after almost a year of waiting, why now?

There are few who doubt that this is, at least in part, driven by a political desire in the government to offer something to young people following last year’s election. There is a belief amongst some Conservative MPs and sections of the media that Labour performed well with the young based solely on their tuition fee pledge. This is of course, a myth: our research following the election showed that fees were only the third most decisive issue, behind Brexit and the NHS.

Nevertheless, the acknowledgement that the current high education funding system is broken is a welcome one- better late than never. This is a system that has failed according to every possible measure; it’s not providing the skills required for the economy, it represents a bad deal for the taxpayer and is burdening students with over 50k of debt. Conservative grandees have taken to the press recently to justify the current regime as more of a graduate stealth tax – a tax that runs an interest rate at 24 points higher than the Bank of England base rate, more than the average mortgage.

What is most baffling about the prime minister’s announcement is her acknowledgement that the system is not working – in her words we have “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” – whilst ruling out the substantive change necessary to fix such a flawed model.

The options for reform that are seemingly “off the table” include any further investment from the public purse, the abolition of tuition fees and any reform to maintenance.

We know that the current maintenance loan system is entirely unfit for purpose. Since the abolition of grants, more and more students are telling us they are struggling to get by. The introduction of loans to replace grants has penalised those from disadvantaged backgrounds with even greater debts, and done nothing to alleviate the staggering poverty that many students face on a daily basis.

Similarly, the prime minister talked a great deal about access but said nothing about how to get students get through and on in education. The evidence shows that even when working class students make it into Higher Education, they continue to face social and financial barriers that other students don’t. Graduate prospects are still determined more by your background going into university than the quality of your degree coming out of it.

By omitting these key student issues before the review has even begun, the prime minister has already ensured that it probably won’t address the biggest issues in our broken post-18 funding system.

We received a taster of what will actually be considered over the weekend in briefings from ministers. These focused on variable fees as an option, charging different fees for different courses. If increased public investment has been all but ruled out, and as Damian Hinds (secretary of state for education) stated, reductions will not be enforced centrally, how will these changes be implemented? There is seemingly a strange contradiction in setting out a key objective to increase participation in STEM subjects, but then to suggest slapping a premium on those with higher potential earnings. This will only drive down the number of applications from less privileged backgrounds to those subjects, and risk a sharper degree of social stratification than even currently exists.

If this situation comes to pass, it will likely represent an assault on our education as universities struggle to meet the shortfall with cuts and course closures, as the University and College Union (UCU) have warned. Contrary to what often appears in the tabloids, most universities are not awash with cash – much of the initial surplus generated by the tripling of tuition fees has been offset by the reduction in funding from government and the lack of inflationary increases, as well as in some instances towards capital expenditure that institutions have deemed necessary to survive in the post-numbers cap landscape. Without a government commitment to plug that funding gap, universities may be forced to find the money elsewhere – which could threaten budgets for widening access and bursaries for the less well-off.

It's clear that the remit of this review is far too limited. We do need to rebuild our broken system – but if  the government chooses to just tinker around the edges, generating a few cheap headlines along the way, then these kinds of changes could do more harm than good.

All in all, it’s unclear what the prime minister wants from this review,  and the lack of student representation certainly doesn’t bode well for the prospect of a serious and far-reaching review. Unless the panel, led by chair Phillip Augar, is able to exceed all expectations and put credible options back on the table, it’s unlikely to provide Theresa May with the electoral credibility among young people that her government is chasing, or to provide the kind of reform that students desperately need.

Work areas: Education.