Can Higher Education be depoliticised in 2018?

This piece was first published on *HE Research (09.01.18)


At a conference in December of last year, Professor Clare Callender called for debates around student funding to be depoliticised. Such is the extent to which tuition fees have become an ideological and partisan issues, many of us in attendance found it difficult to conceive of discourses that were not politicised. Subsequent appointments did not help this situation. So, at the start of a new year, this blog considers some of the steps that might be taken – and the basic principles that might be followed – if funding issues are to be discussed in less divisive ways.


  1. Loan repayment terms should be set in stone, not subject to change at a political whim. When higher fees were introduced in 2012, borrowers were told that their repayment threshold would rise with inflation. In 2015, as part of an austerity agenda, this promise was broken. And in 2017, as part of a wheeze to win back young voters, it was announced that the threshold would increase to above its initial level. This adjustment will bring welcome relief to many recent graduates, but that’s not the point – whether the changes are generous or ungenerous makes no difference. Once a loan is agreed, students have a right to expect that their repayment terms won’t be meddled with to meet political agenda.


  1. Funding models should be analysed independently, according pre-determined long-range indicators. An unedifying aspect of the funding system introduced in 2012 was how quickly and unproblematically it was hailed a success. Jo Johnson characterised the model as a “great success story,” citing the OECD’s description of England as “one of the few countries to have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance.” Of course, the often-repeated claim that ‘more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university than ever before’ is entirely true. The problem is that the relentless focus on the ‘young’ conceals a sharp fall in mature students and a 56% collapse in part-time numbers. And then there’s question of which type of institution these additional young students are attending. Evidence suggests it’s twice as likely to be a university outside the top ten as one inside the top ten. While a high ranking institution is no guarantee of high quality teaching, we know that the top jobs tend to get hoovered up by alumni of elite universities. And with the most recent UCAS figures noting that the participation gap – the difference in likelihood of attending university between those in the most and least disadvantaged quintiles – has widened for a third consecutive year, it’s worth asking whether ‘young’ participation is the only indicator in town? A more forward-thinking system would surely set a range of goals – across demographic groups, university types and modes of engagement – and assess outcomes strictly on a long-term basis.


  1. Students should have enough to live on. Given the levels of debt that students are now expected to enter into, one would reasonably assume that enough money would be provided to cover day-to-day expenses. But the current maintenance system for students offers no such guarantee. According to one study, 10% of students say they may have to drop out of university because they can’t afford to continue. Since maintenance grants were most recently abolished, the NUS claim that 46% of students worry about being unable to afford basics such as bread and milk. It’s not only an implicit deterrent to wider access, it’s a practical impediment to healthy living and good mental health.


  1. Universities should be more upfront about what they spend their money on. The sector has for too long obscured the way in which it manages its own budgets. Despite calls for greater transparency when fees rose, institutions have largely shrouded themselves in secrecy. But this position is not only unsustainable, it’s counter-productive. The recent furore over VC pay will not be the last of its kind; politicians, students and wider society will continue to probe the sector’s finances, asking why universities are complaining about real-term cuts in student income while sitting on often substantial Humanities students, in particular, will ask why they’re paying the same fees as students elsewhere when their degree usually costs less. By no means are such questions unanswerable. Indeed, I’m quite happy to explain to my Education undergrads why some of their fees may be used to subsidise the Medical School across the road. But the sector’s reticence is itself political.


  1. The sector should reclaim language that’s consistent with the role of university as an educational institution. It’s remarkably how quickly the language of politics and business have replaced the language of learning in Higher Education. This is partly justifiable on the grounds that the sector now, thankfully, serves a wider function in society. No longer are universities the finishing schools of the elites and ivory towers for uninterrupted contemplation. The emergent language – ‘employability’, ‘impact’, etc. – is mostly a reflection of necessary evolution. But the new vocabulary isn’t politically neutral. If you frame students as under-protected consumers, and degrees as potentially mis-sold, then you are reducing education to a private good. If you talk relentlessly about students’ ‘value-for-money‘ then you are changing the nature of students’ engagement with their learning. A depoliticised funding model would remind society that the university experience is potentially life-changing, with new intellectual itches to be scratched and new kinds of knowledge in which to become absorbed.


  1. Higher Education should be reintegrated with earlier forms of education. No-one has ever been sure quite where universities should sit within government. Are we there to educate, in parallel with FE colleges and adult learning centres, as part of a pedagogical pipeline that stretches from primary, through secondary, to its final destination? Or are we more about business, a supplier of highly productive graduates to feed the needs of high-skills labour markets? Whatever your preference, there’s a mismatch. Schools’ curricula have reverted to rote learning and long exams, while universities cling to ideas around independent learning, critical thinking and the co-production of scholarly knowledge. But the students we receive, though often brilliant at remembering and recalling facts, don’t always associate education with the development of informed opinions. A more joined-up, inclusive and progressive education system would recognise disadvantage and seek to compensate at all levels. A provision based on pedagogy rather than politics would better serve the needs of all young people.


Perhaps by talking about Higher Education – and the options for funding it – in less nakedly politicised terms, its status as a public good might begin to be reclaimed. As we move into a new year, the need for educational policy to be underpinned by some basic principles is arguably greater than ever before.


When it comes to higher education policy, Labour is asking itself the wrong question

(Note: I published this piece first at the London School of Economics’ General Election 2015 blog on 06.02.15…)

“How can we bring down the headline £9,000 per year figure?” seems to be a challenge that Labour Party policymakers have set themselves ahead of the General Election, perhaps concerned that higher fees could deter participation, especially among society’s less privileged groups, and that too many student loans are being written off. These are valid concerns and, to some extent, the “intense focus” on the £9,000 headline figure is justified: since English universities became the most expensive in Europe, enrolment rates for mature and part time students have fallen sharply. Moreover, estimates continue to suggest that the new funding system will prove more expensive for the taxpayer than the one it replaced.


But there’s a risk that trying to reduce the headline figure will actually cause further damage. The first thing to remember is that £9,000 is an irrelevant sum to most graduates because they’ll never repay their debt in full. Whether higher fees deter young people from applying to university is difficult to gauge. There’s no evidence to support that position yet, even among those from the lowest socio-economic quintile, but it is possible that early trends are being skewed by a lack of meaningful labour market alternatives.

Labour is reportedly toying with the idea of capping fees at £6,000 per year. But university VCs are already demanding to know how the lost revenue would be replaced. It would be a bold government that asked the Higher Education sector to do it all a bit cheaper. Relative to the share of GDP received, many indicators suggest that UK universities already punch above their weight.

One solution would be to change the income threshold at which graduates begin their repayments. At the moment, it’s £21,000 per year. It would be very easy for any government to raise revenue by reducing this threshold, or by freezing it as inflation rises, thereby making graduates repay more of their loans more quickly. But such a move raises all kinds of equity issues. Remember that when £9,000 fees were introduced the biggest losers, relative to the previous model, were middle earning graduates. As the Sutton Trust noted, the “average teacher” would now pay back around £42,000 of student debt, and still be making repayments when they reach their early 50s. Under the previous system, the same teacher would have repaid around £25,000 and completed at the age of 40. In relative terms, changing the income threshold would hurt low and middle earning graduates more than those on higher incomes, and cutting the headline figure to £6,000 may well have a similar effect.

So what are the alternatives? As a recent report by the Higher Education Commission concluded, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to higher education funding. But the question that Labour might want to begin asking itself is “Can those who benefit most from Higher Education contribute more?” Such thinking immediately brings to mind the Graduate Tax, a phrase that increasingly means whatever its user wants it to mean, as several commentators have noted. A ‘pure’ form of Graduate Tax, levied against all income at the same rate, would be controversial for practical reasons – very high earners may choose to leave the country rather than keep paying. It would also raise issues of fairness – should any graduate be required to foot the bill for their degree thousands of times over?

The kind of funding system that Labour might want to think about is one that demands more for longer from the very highest earners. At the moment, it’s possible for some graduates to repay their loans relatively quickly, thereby dodging interest. But what if everyone had to contribute something for the full thirty years? Just a regular flat, fee for those lucky enough to have finished their loan repayments and still be earning a healthy salary?

Would anyone complain about fairness if the resultant income allowed the 2012 funding system, with its safeguards for lower earning graduates, to be preserved at less expense for the taxpayer? And for the all-important repayment threshold to rise with inflation, as promised, for all graduates? Might it even allow further support for students struggling to get by on inadequate maintenance loans, or for hard-hit groups, such as mature and part time students?

The main opposition to a Graduate Tax seems to be ideological rather than economic. We’re told that, in the marketplace of Higher Education, “competition, with suitable regulation, benefits the student”. To treat all graduates equally is to make free market behaviour, such as price discrimination, more difficult. And that raises the toughest question of all: “What are universities for?”

Is the optimum model of Higher Education is one that drives up quality by using dubious metrics to pit university against university? Or should the goal now be to reclaim Higher Education as a public good as well as a private good, and to accept that some graduates will earn more than their peers simply because they enter better-paid professions? Labour need to ask the right question.