Over the past few days, news headlines have been full of conjecture regarding a potential review into tuition fees and student debt, a rumour finally confirmed by the Prime Minister on Monday.
While we obviously welcome this long-overdue review and support the calls to take a fresh look at the issue, it feels somewhat galling coming from a government which has overseen the pushing-through of numerous deeply unpopular and damaging policies relating to student funding – not least one whose current Cabinet contains just one MP who voted against the trebling of tuition fees in 2010. Indeed, this Review feels particularly exasperating given that the problems created by this policy were actively warned against by Students’ Unions and the NUS prior to the bill’s passing.
This government's Higher Education policy has been largely disastrous for students, many of whom now leave University with debts of £50,000+ and a spiralling interest rate of up to 6.1% on post-2012 loans. During the last 8 years, Universities have lined their pockets at students’ expense and Vice-Chancellors’ pay has skyrocketed – all while teaching staff have suffered a real-terms pay cut and are now forced to take industrial action in a bid to protect their pensions. In what can only be described as a grotesque inversion of the principles of fairness and opportunity, it is students from low-income backgrounds who now emerge from Higher Education with the highest level of debt due to the replacement of maintenance grants with additional loans. And in what is hardly an unrelated coincidence, demand for mental health support on campuses has reached record levels, with many services being stretched to breaking point.
Our Higher Education system should be a public, social good. However, as a result of ongoing marketisation, it is becoming increasingly corrupted and unstable. Though we welcome this Review in theory, we approach its potential outcomes and findings with caution. Differentiating fees based on “graduate earnings” is a deeply flawed proposal, and cutting fees to a certain level after raising them exponentially in the first instance is not grounds for a ‘thank you’ (what's more, it means nothing if that gap is not going to be made up by government funds). An education system which fails to adequately invest in teaching and learning at the source, and without sufficient support for those from the least-advantaged backgrounds, is simply an attempt to mark time while paying cursory lip-service to those most affected by this issue.
The Sabbatical Officer Team