Tuition fees are a triumphant success when it comes to increasing the number of young people in higher education. Roughly a third of young people are now in it. Indeed, record numbers of 18 years olds were accepted into University in 2016. Applications last year hit their highest-ever recorded from the areas least represented in higher education. So whatever the debt burden on young graduates may be, it is not deterring very large numbers of young people from going to university, including a higher number from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Perhaps this is because they have grasped that the system which funds them is less a student loans one than a graduate contribution scheme. In other words, those loans are subsidised. Graduates repay nine per cent of everything earned £25,000 – a rise of £4000 announced at last October’s Conservative Party Conference. Repayments stop after 30 years. What is repaid therefore bears no relation to the size of the debt. Furthermore, the ceiling for tuition fees has been frozen at £9,250 a year. The Sutton Trust estimates that eight in ten students will never repay their loans in full.
None the less, what comes out of the University system is at least as important as what goes in. One does not have to hold a utilitarian view of education to believe that if the numbers of firsts rises but employers assert that graduates are not up to the job; if there is a cartel and not competition when it comes to fees, and that if Vice-Chancellor of a good, though not outstanding, University can be paid the superlative salary of £468,000, then there is something rotten in the state of our universities. And the snowflaking-over of free speech in some institutions is scarcely an advertisment for the system.
The inevitable conclusion is familiar, and very British: the University system is too big, attention-consuming and well-resourced; the technical sector is too undervalued, piecemeal and under-funded. It is a complaint that stretches back to the technical schools that never emerged from the Butler post-war reforms all the way to the growth of the public schools in the nineteenth century. One should keep a sense of proportion: international league tables show that the top universities are most likely to either British or, especially, American. But the balance between higher and technical education is clearly awry.
We wrote in the ConservativeHome Manifesto four years ago that the country needs “a major resource shift to vocational education”. As Universities Minister, Jo Johnson strove to ensure that new competitors will enter higher education: the other half of that coin is that some old providers must, if his reforms work, necessarily leave it. Andrew Adonis took a break from bashing Brexit to biffing Vice-Chancellors, arguing that lower-performing Universities should return to being Polytechnics. Nick Boles wants “a network of Technical Universities across the country”, specialising in “the provision of Technical Diplomas, technical degrees and degree apprenticeships”.
These are the Institutes of Technology in last summer’s Conservative Manifesto by another name. Which brings us to the man who masterminded it – our former columnist, Nick Timothy, now raised to further glory in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. And although he has lost his beard he has kept his bite. This morning, he does to Justine Greening what he has been doing to Philip Hammond for a longer period of time, writing both that Theresa May is well rid of her former Education Secretary, and that he himself had nothing to do with her being asked to leave the department.
In particular, he claims that Greening “refused to hold a proper review of tertiary education”. She has not had the chance to respond so we will let this claim pass. It is certainly true that the manifesto pledged “a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money”. Or in other words: shift money from higher education to technical education. Previously, he has followed his logic to its conclusion, calling for the Government to force “the conversion of a number of universities into these new institutes”.
There are practical challenges for these ideas. Timothy believes that this shake-up would provide the variable fees that the present system does not. He is probably right, but beware further cartels. He complains about student debt. On a minor point, some fees would rise if the market he wants came into being, though that would be offset by others falling elsewhere. On a more major and different one, a review can only produce results if action follows. And any shift of resources from higher to technical education would surely require the support of the Commons – not to mention that of Timothy’s Treasury friend, who could find any saving from the first spent on the second.
We cannot help but point out that the manifesto itself, together with a campaign utterly unsuited to it, destroyed the bigger Tory majority which the local elections promised, and without which Parliamentary backing for change simply isn’t there. But that is no reason for Damian Hinds not to press ahead with the review, in order to make the argument, prepare for change, and look to the next election. The Education Secretary has our sympathy. He was tipped as a possible Tory future leader on this site yesterday by an impish Michael Gove. This morning, Timothy makes the same point. You could forgive Hinds for thinking that he has enough challenges as it is.