Ellie King is a masters student at the University of Warwick, and a former Deputy Chairman of University of Warwick Conservatives.
This summer, I graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA Hons in History. My debt sits at around £27,000, and I’m unlikely to pay it off in full before it is wiped when I turn 50. But hearing speculation that Tuition Fees may be cut by £5,000 over the course of an undergraduate degree (meaning that yearly fees would be capped at about £7500) gave me mixed feelings – because, to be quite honest, I’m not sure that the move would do much to solve the problem of the ever-rising cost of attending university.
First, why it would be good. How about because £9,250 a year is extortionate? Especially for students who have on average ten contact hours a week mand a lecturer who literally just reads off the powerpoint (and no comments on how that is my own fault because I chose a pointless arts degree, please, I’m going into a history-based career). I believe we should pay for our higher education, but over nine grand a year does seem a bit unnecessary. So, yes, shaving £5000 off that is quite nice. I also understand the reasoning of preventing universities making a profit out of tuition fees – and so softly regulating them in this way would be a good thing.
Next, the threshold for repayment may be raised to £25,000. This makes loan repayments even more like a graduate tax, since many will take time to reach this salary, if they do at all.
Finally, the present interest rates will be lowered. In my opinion, these need to sit at the rate of inflation, but lowering from 6.1 per cent is at least a start.
But beyond this, I really can’t see much benefit in lowering fees. You don’t pay upfront; the repayments are minuscule and come straight out of your wage, and most people won’t pay it all off in any event. Despite the tripling of fees in 2012, more people from low-income backgrounds are applying to university than ever before, which suggests that the price of fees isn’t as off-putting as you might think.
That’s why I see any such move by Ministers as an empty point-scoring ploy which would convince no-one. Those who call for ‘free education’ are generally staunchly left wing and, even if the Government took such action, they would find another reason not to vote for us anyway. The response I’ve seen from young conservatives has largely been negative, and so it doesn’t please those people either. That’s why it’s like buying an ornament to put in your front hall: it looks nice, but essentially doesn’t do anything.
The reason any such initiative would be empty is because the real barrier to university education is living costs. Yes, there are more students from low-income backgrounds attending, but those from them are most likely to develop mental health problems, and drop out of university, because of the cost of living. I believe there are three means of improving this situation: maintenance grants, the criteria for maintenance loans, and scholarships and bursaries.
I was extremely grateful to receive a maintenance grant for my living costs. Helping the most disadvantaged in society go to university is surely a good thing, and I was disappointed when the Conservatives scrapped this back in 2016. But is it really fair to allow me, and others of my economic standing, to not have to pay back this money, when there are many others who will have to? Middle-class children, whose parents are on a decent wage, are not necessarily able to afford the cost of university any more than a child from a low-income family. It makes much more sense to greatly expand the loan amounts that are available, and provide all students with this. Currently, the loans available are not good enough, and interest rates are ridiculously high.
For example, many students find that their loan does not even cover accommodation costs, and so have to find part-time employment to supplement it: Warwick is notoriously bad for this. University accommodation rents should not exceed loan amounts. I myself undertook part-time work during my degree, and encourage many other students to do the same, as it develops good skills for future employment, but this should not be relied on for basic living costs.
Furthermore, the criteria for loans are seriously flawed, and do not take into consideration many important factors. To only consider parents’ income is particularly naive. It assumes that parents will support their children at university – especially in cases of high income where the maximum loan available is not granted. This may not be the case: some parents may not be willing, and it is wrong to discriminate against a child based on this. Is it really fair to judge a child’s situation on their parents’?
The present systen also does not take siblings into consideration. Yes, parents may jointly earn a very respectable £60,000 a year and, according to the Government, this means that a loan payment will be minimal, since the parent can support their child through university. But what if they have three children who will all be attending university simultaneously? Can we really expect them to support each child fully and equally? This is just one example of how the loan criteria is flawed: it should take into consideration far more factors than just parents’ incomes to determine loan amounts.
Earlier, I said that the government should not reintroduce maintenance grants. However, I think it is important to ensure that the brightest students from low income and diverse backgrounds are still able to attend university. Therefore, we should massively expand scholarship schemes, both from universities and private companies. These should be based on merit, and focus on getting disadvantaged people into university (for example, increasing the amount of women going into STEM subjects). Private companies should support exceptional candidates through university and provide employment at the end of their degree. It can only be in businesses’ interests to support future employees, giving them the skills and knowledge they need to flourish. I am a conservative because I believe in giving people the best opportunity and freedom to succeed in life, and the relevant interest groups need to work together to ensure this.
To sum up, there are lots of steps that the Conservatives can take to improve higher education, and I have provided a number of suggestions. Unfortunately, cutting tuition fees is not one of them. This move is simply a point-scorer for the party, which is unlikely to win over many people at all. There are far more sophisticated policies that the Conservatives can introduce if they truly want to help students. Instead, they have seen the significant increase in the youth vote at the last election, seem to have panicked, and are straining to solve the problem with the simplest answer. However, this proposal is definitely not the best one. Sorry, Philip Hammond – you’re going to have to try a lot harder.