Slashing funding while almost trebling fees is a shot in the dark, and universities have been gutless in accepting their lot, writes Sir Peter Lampl in the Guardian
“Last month I came out publicly against the government's proposals for a rise in tuition fees on the basis that they were tantamount to a privatisation of higher education. State funding for university teaching is to be cut by an eye-watering 80%, resulting in an unacceptable financial burden on low- and middle-income students.
At the weekend Nick Clegg publicly declared his intention to vote for the £9,000 tuition fees ceiling, but softened this with more details of a £150m national scholarship fund to help the most needy students, including by waiving their first two years of fees.
Ed Miliband, on the other hand, called for restraint and suggested a graduate tax. He said that no party with a deep and genuine commitment to social mobility could support the current proposals.
I have no party political axe to grind. A few months ago the Sutton Trust, which I chair, recommended exempting low-income students from paying first-year university fees as part of a range of measures to protect the most vulnerable. So the government has taken a small step in the right direction, but this pales in comparison with the negative impact of the £9,000 tuition fees bombshell – not just on the most needy, but on all but the wealthiest families.
So I hope some winter sun will thaw cold hearts on the coalition benches. Pushing forward with such speed into the unknown is unsafe, unpredictable and no basis for a policy which is central to individual opportunity and national prosperity.
So what do I think should happen given that cuts must be made? Tuition fees should be capped at £5,000 a year. Those who benefit from university study should be expected to contribute more when their earning levels permit, but it is a question of balance.
Over the last few years, the Sutton Trust has carried out an annual survey of the university aspirations of about 2,500 young students in comprehensive schools. June's survey showed that record numbers – about 80% – were expecting to apply to university. However the study also showed that if fees rose to £7,000 or above, that figure would dwindle to 45%. And if fees rose higher, as is now expected at many universities, it would decline still further to just over one quarter.
Potential students may not actually desert higher education in such droves, but there is no doubt that such a significant increase in tuition costs would be a serious deterrent for those from non-privileged backgrounds. These are the students I have made it my life's work to help ever since, in the 1990s, I visited my old college at Oxford and found it dominated by those from well-off homes. That is why I feel so strongly about this issue: it is a scandal that the potential of so many young people is being wasted.
I realise that cuts to the higher education budget were inevitable. It is their sheer savageness I question. Depending on estimates, two-thirds to 80% of the current teaching grant looks set to disappear – much more than any other area covered by the comprehensive spending review.
This is simply not acceptable when the impact on the next generation is so profound – and it is disappointing that the university sector has been so gutless in accepting its lot. Universities reckon they will need to charge students £7,000 a year just to fill the void. Even then, there's no new money, which vice chancellors say is desperately needed. So, in reality, most universities will end up charging the maximum fee level for fear of being perceived as second rate. And who is to say how long it will be before fees creep up beyond £9,000, particularly for the elites?
But if the teaching grant were cut by the same figure as the average across the business department – a severe but more proportionate 25% – our calculations suggest the black hole could be filled by charging undergraduates around £5,000 a year. This would also inject an additional £1.8bn into the system for growth and sustainability.
Importantly, our survey work shows that fees around this level would not have a major impact on aspirations to study. It is the sheer magnitude of tuition costs of £9,000 a year that hugely dampens demand.
And if the coalition went a step further – and the teaching grant was reduced by the average across all government departments of 19% – the injection of resources would be even greater.
The proposals facing parliament on Thursday tip the scales violently to the extreme. An almost trebling of tuition fees and a slashing of state support for universities takes us on a journey into the unknown; an unprecedented shot in the dark, with young people's futures at stake.
The double whammy of major cuts to state funding for universities and higher fees is inequitable and is sure to freeze social mobility. That is a bitter legacy for any politician.”
Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, which seeks to improve social mobility through education