The government’s education plan is bad policy and worse politics

23 Feb 2018

Theresa May feels your pain. Or, if that’s a bit of a stretch, she acknowledges your serious concerns. That’s what Number 10 briefed in the night before her speech, and the launch of a year-long review into higher education. There’s talk that Tory MPs are worried that parents, grandparents, and basically anyone who knows someone going to university, are in danger of defecting to Labour. This follows the flawed logic that Labour have sewn up the youth vote in unprecedented numbers, something that’s been refuted by a BES paper released earlier this year. So, out of what appears to be nothing more than electoral fear, the Tories have returned to the issue of higher education funding and fees.


The first issue that the government face here is one of politics. Unless they scrap tuition fees, their offering is just going to be seen as a less generous alternative to what Labour are proposing. The government has considered lowering the cost of some, or all courses, changing the repayment threshold, or lowering the interest rate. The problem here is that, electorally, all they’re doing is offering less than Labour. It’s a political misstep, and one the government seem to be making again and again. But this is different to the last time that the issue arose; now, with the announcement of a review into higher education funding, the government are offering solutions that, at first glance, appear to be more substantive than the things that they’ve offered before.


Damian Hinds, the new Education Secretary, has said that he will do what he can to make arts courses cheaper, acknowledging that “almost all courses [are] charging exactly the same price where some cost higher amounts [to teach] than others.” This, in theory, seems like a good idea; making a course that costs less to cheap also cost less for students. But that’s in theory. In practice, it’s a different matter entirely.


Universities use cross-subsidies in order to fund their courses. To put it in layman’s terms, all courses cost the same amount, but not all of the money for an English Lit course goes towards actually running the English lit course. A degree in engineering is more expensive to teach, and so some of the money in fees that an English Lit student is paying will actually be used to cover the extra costs of an engineering degree. This goes some way to explaining why STEM and arts degrees cost the same amount, even when they don’t cost the same amount to run and teach. So the problem becomes, if an arts course suddenly has lower fees than a STEM course, then the universities lose out on money they use to cross-subsidise more expensive courses, and would need funding from other sources in order to cover the extra cost of teaching STEM degrees.


In theory, this money could come from the government. But again, that’s just in theory. Tuition fees are an exchange between individual (student) and institution (university), but that wouldn’t apply to money given to universities by the government; they’d need to find a revenue raising measure in order to get any money that they chose to give to universities for the running and teaching of STEM courses.


The cost of STEM courses, and the number of people studying them, have become increasingly important in the wake of Brexit. It has been argued that the shortage of those with STEM skills in the UK should be “treated as a national crisis.” And the government’s policy does nothing to lessen that crisis. If anything, the idea of making arts courses cheaper adds an inventive not to study STEM. If a prospective student is on the fence about studying an arts or STEM subjects, the prospect of graduating with significantly less debt will push them more towards the former of the two options.


These problems come before considering what effect the government’s education review will have on the landscape of higher education funding. At the end of the terms of reference published by the Department for Education, it is revealed that the review’s recommendations “must be consistent with the Government’s fiscal policies to reduce the deficit and have debt falling as a percentage of GDP.” So, in the event that Hinds gets his wish and arts courses become cheaper, the government won’t be able to provide financial support to universities to cover the cost of STEM courses. As well as this, they won’t be able to consider bringing back maintenance grants. The scrapping of grants became a major deterrent to those from lower incomes, with past information revealing that “nearly two thirds [of students] has financial reasons” preventing them from considering going to university.


With social mobility and the lack of STEM graduates being seen as crises, and Brexit creating a greater need for investment in Britain from the government, this education review, and the possibilities it brings forward, seem more likely to hinder than help the current situation. The government remains politically weak on the issue due to Labour’s promise to abolish fees, and the policies that they are offering seem misunderstood at best, and damaging at worst. The Prime Minister might say that she understands your concerns, but she doesn’t seem willing or able to do anything to lessen them.

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