There is no large-scale policy problem, strictly speaking, with students, debt and tuition fees. Roughly a third of young people are in higher education. Indeed, record numbers of 18 years olds were accepted into University last year. Applications are at their highest-ever recorded from the areas least represented in higher education. So whatever else may be said of the current system, it isn’t putting young people off from applying to university. But if there is not a policy problem, there is certainly a political one.
What May and her government needs is a quick fix, but not a panic one – i.e: a rushed announcement in Manchester during the coming week. This is classic review territory. She could do a lot worse than draft in an outsider whose conclusions would carry weight. One is Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com (were he willing), who has a recent record of engagement with the subject.
Our take is that what matters to students at least as much as their finances in the future is their finances now. George Osborne scrapped maintenance grants for poorer students in 2015. On ConservativeHome, Salman Anwar has suggested introducing a universal maintenance loan. His suggestion is well worth looking at – and the review should report within a year.
During what is still likely to be the longer run-up to the next election, Ministers will want to look at what undoubtedly is a big-scale policy problem – namely, the imbalance in support between academic and vocational education. This site has been going on about it since the ConservativeHome manifesto of 2014. Last June’s Conservative manifesto promised a review. The Government needs to find a way of putting some flesh on these bones.
Too many reviews, nor enough action, some will say – and they are doubtless right. But May has no choice. She has no majority for radical legislation.