The future of tuition fees following the election

With the deadline for the full implementation of the GDPR drawing closer, organisations which have not yet started to map out their data processing and modify their procedures to ensure compliance with the new regime need to start doing so now. Organisations which are aware of and have systems in place to ensure compliance with their current obligations under the Data The Independent Panel chaired by Lord Browne published its Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance in 2010. The Panel had been established by all-party agreement before the general election took place in 2010. That election led to a coalition government of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The catastrophic consequences for the Liberal Democrats who supported the new fee regime despite having campaigned on a platform of scrapping fees are well-documented. When it comes to fees, memories abide. It is noteworthy that the Chair of the Office of Students, Michael Barber, was a member of Lord Browne’s Panel. He may already be refreshing his memory of the evidence and proposals it considered.

Seven years later the UK has elected a minority government with a Labour Party in opposition but strengthened by gains undoubtedly derived in part from its manifesto promises which included the abolition of tuition fees and the restoration of maintenance grants for all. Double digit swings to Labour in “university seats” are empirical evidence for YouGov’s analysis of the election which suggests that Labour enjoyed 60+% support among 18-30 year-olds and nearly 50% support from those with degree qualifications. Deep concern about fees policy in England is exacerbated by the different arrangements in Scotland and Wales, the latter under further consideration following the Diamond Review. Just prior to the election, the Higher Education and Research Act became law. It includes various provisions about fees and their link to the outcomes of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the production of a satisfactory Access and Participation Plan. It is doubtful that it will be possible with confidence to assume that the current fee policy for England is sustainable in such an uncertain political climate. The net cost of the Labour Party’s policy has been calculated at £9bn a year although it has recently acknowledged that its policy will need refinement. Many universities will fear that were tuition fees to be abolished, no government would match the lost income by a similar grant. Pressure to reduce that burden could lead to greater demands for transparency about costs and requirements for efficiency. On the other hand, universities like Oxford and Cambridge that demonstrate that the cost of teaching is substantially higher than the current £9.25k fee would be concerned that they would lose autonomy and competitive edge by the abolition of fees paid by students.

The Browne Review and the subsequent fees legislation that followed it was intended, together with the more recent Higher Education and Research Act, to set the principles for the higher education sector and its framework of regulation for the long-term. That now seems unlikely. A range of eventual outcomes for England, and indeed the devolved nations, now seems possible. Will it be impossible to resist the demands for another independent review and the further changes to legislation and regulatory regimes that would entail?

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