Where could UK student tuition fees be heading?

Posted by Michael Rainsford in

A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) highlights that a third of first-year and second-year students in England consider their course to be poor or very poor value for money. This compares to a figure of just 18.3% according to the same study in 2012 prior to the tuition fee rate hike. In Scotland, 70% of students considered their course good value for money in the last survey- perhaps unsurprising given the majority pay no fees at all.

In the lead up to the last general election, Nick Clegg pledged to abolish tuition fees, with the aim of reducing student debt and increasing the attractiveness of attaining a UK university degree. In his position as deputy prime minister, not only did Mr. Clegg fail to gain support within the coalition government for a reduction in fees, but he presided over increasing fees, which rose by their largest ever year-on-year amount. The majority of students in the UK now pay £9,000 per year and in the first year of the fee hike (2012/13) student numbers took a battering (despite subsequently recovering to near pre-hike levels).

At the time, Mr. Clegg admitted that given the prevailing state of the economy, the country simply could not afford such an expensive policy. On this occasion, he failed to match his side of the bargain; this could certainly come back to haunt him in elections to come.

Over the last week, we have seen the UK council and European MEP elections unfold. Alongside this, the UK economy continues to show positive signs of recovery. These latest data points could provide some indication as to where tuition fees could be heading post the next election, which will take place on or before 7th May, 2015 - now less than one year away.

These elections have resulted in landslide losses for the Liberal Democrats, losing 310 council seats across the country from their previous total of 737 across 161 local authorities.

This is a major setback for those hoping for a scrap in tuition fees anytime soon. The Conservative party maintains the decision to increase fees was the right one and the Labour party is starting to stutter over its 2011 plans to reduce tuition fees to £6,000 per year, although this does still remain the official pledge.

A major beneficiary of the recent council elections was UKIP, stealing considerable seats from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. In the past, the party eluded to the fact that tuition fees could in principle be scrapped if the UK pulled out of the EU, and both of these policies are ones that the party supports.

To this end, UKIP are well positioned to replace the Liberal Democrat position of supporting a scrap of tuition fees. At the other end of the spectrum, the Conservative Party looks to continue to support a position of £9,000 per year. The Labour Party sits in between these positions with a pledge to reduce fees to £6,000 per year.

The next direction for fees therefore remains in the balance, and there are a number of factors that could swing the position even before the next election, not least the extent to which the UK economy could afford a reduction in fees at the expense of higher government funding into the sector.

Beyond this, the extent to which student loan defaults impact tuition fees is not entirely clear. Higher defaults could mean that fees are simply too high and increasing them further will only exacerbate the issue at hand. Conversely, if tuition fees fall in response to rising defaults, how will the government fund this mounting burden of doubtful debt?

The one statistic that policy-makers have up their sleeve is that this academic year has proven the medium-term inelasticity of demand for higher education. Year-on-year enrollment recovered strongly since the first year of tuition fee hikes and any political party will milk this fact for all it is worth to justify a no-reduction in tuition fee stance.

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