The mountain of student debt weighing on our young people may soon get even bigger.
Last week, university tuition fees hit the headlines as the BBC revealed that some universities are already advertising fees of £9,250 for students starting in September 2017 – an increase on the current £9,000 cap.
The Higher Education and Research Bill currently before parliament plans to let institutions increase their fees with inflation if they can demonstrate high quality teaching. Those plans were debated by MPs just last week and are due to receive further scrutiny in the autumn. The bill will enact plans set out in the recent higher education white paper, linking tuition fees to a new ‘Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’ which will award institutions three different ratings depending on the quality of teaching—meets expectations, excellent or outstanding.
During the debate in parliament, shadow higher education minister Gordon Marsden described the TEF as a ‘Trojan horse’ for increasing fees, and criticised the impact which the bill will have on students and staff. In the first two years, all institutions with satisfactory quality assessments will be able to increase their fees in line with forecast inflation, currently set at 2.8%. From 2019, those that meet expectations will only be able to increase their fees at a rate equivalent to 50% of inflation, while those ranked either excellent or outstanding will be eligible for a full inflationary rise.
The TEF is clearly a way to unleash the full force of the market in higher education, and entrenches the position of students as consumers in a way which is fundamentally inappropriate in our sector. The focus is also wrong-headed, and fails to address some of the key issues which impact on teaching quality, like increasing teacher workloads and the fact that more than 100,000 teaching staff are in insecure employment. My union has called for this damaging bill to be halted, especially in light of the seismic political changes in recent weeks. Brexit and the splitting of responsibility for universities across two government departments will both have a major impact on higher education.
We do not see how this can be the right context in which to make such profound decisions about the future of our university system, including the level of tuition fees students will face. University tuition fees trebled four years ago and with maintenance grants and NHS bursaries also stripped away in recent years, student debt for an undergraduate degree course now sits at up to £51,600 outside of London, and £59,106 in the capital. The financial burden on students in English higher education is already amongst the highest in the world, and the government should take this opportunity to think again before condemning a new generation of students to a lifetime of debt.