Our recent blog article The Tuition Fees Fiasco and the concerned response it provoked from our readers proved just how high the levels of apprehension were about Lord Browne’s review of Higher Education and Student Funding, but until its publication this week none of us knew just how very serious the situation would be.
It is now clear that Lord Browne has recommended a complete removal of the cap on tuition fees for universities in England, allowing academic institutions to charge any level of fees they see fit without limit. Though there are recommendations for a levy on fees above £6000 to persuade most universities to hover around that limit, there is no guarantee that this would prevent some institutions from raising the fees higher still, particularly those with the highest and most academic reputations such as Oxford and Cambridge, who have already revealed their confidence that the demand for places will outstrip availability regardless of the price they choose to set.
In addition Browne proposes hitting already debt-crippled students with an almost doubled interest rate on the repayment of student loans.
With the National Union of Students labelling the report “foolish, risky, lazy, complacent and dangerous” and the Liberal Democrats frantically trying to reconcile it with their pre-election promises, what will the Browne review mean for the average student?
Short Term Effects
In the short-term, for next year’s student applicants, the race for University places is likely to outstrip levels of competition ever seen before, as students scramble to secure a place before the expected implementation of the raised tuition fees in 2012. With a record 190,000 applicants missing out on places this year, the huge numbers of students either re-applying or deciding against a gap-year to get in early is likely to drive competition wildly high.
Long Term Effects
Longer term the UK is simply expecting students to continue to look for places to study at almost double the cost, and with no real compensation offered to help them foot the burden. Although Browne suggests raising the income level at which repayment is required to £21,000, he also wants to increase the amount of time before outstanding loans are wiped out from 25 to 30 years.
Perhaps most harshly of all, the review recommends imposing penalties for early repayment, preventing the brightest and most hardworking of students who may wish to make an early start in paying their loan back and get out from under the shadow of their debt a little sooner, from being able to do so without paying the same amount of interest as those who remain unemployed for years before they begin paying back their loan. If ever a government found a way to discourage hard work and entrepreneurship in its young graduates in such an age of economic hardship, this must surely be it.
30 Years Of Debt
Whilst student loans are set to be reduced, the level of the average graduate debt is estimated to be so high that 60-70% of students would reach the 30 year cut-off period without ever having managed to pay off their debt completely. Not only does this suggest an intrinsic flaw in the entire scheme, but also means that it will be more than 30 years before the average student is debt-free. With loans and mortgages at an all-time low and controls stricter than ever, this could only worsen the current problems in the housing market, as first-time buyers are likely to be squeezed further still from that elusive first rung of the ladder.
Impact On Universities
Browne supporters suggest that the extra income from higher tuition fees will enable the best universities to provide higher academic standards and better research, but they will be hard pressed to meaningfully transfer this to a brighter, more successful graduating student body when only the richest, rather than the cleverest students are able to afford to attend at all. Furthermore many universities are not even convinced that the tuition fees hike will spell financial benefit, given the amount of the extra income that will be required just to fill the void following enormous predicted government cuts to their current levels of funding.
Whether it deters some of the brightest students in the country altogether or pushes our academic elite to look for education abroad, creates a purely wealth-based education system in which the richest buy the best degrees, or prevents young people from applying to university altogether, this can only spell disaster for the overall quality and intelligence of graduates in the coming years and decades. Surely it is important to remember that the decisions the governments make at student level not only affect students, but will eventually seep through to our workforce, our economy and our society.
Whether or not the government will put Lord Browne’s recommendations into practice remains to be seen; they are not bound to follow the propositions he sets out in his review. When they make their decision we can only hope that they will think not only of their coffers in the short-term, but also of our entire society and the academic, industrial and international future of our country for decades to come.