In February 2018, the Prime Minister launched a review into the post-18 education system, led by Philip Augar.
The review is the first to examine post-18 education funding in almost a decade, and as well as considering tuition fees, will also consider the funding of wider post-18 qualifications and further education.
Ahead of the review, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has published a new report examining the evidence on the various policy options for the government.
The report scrutinises policy proposals on tuition fees, student support, and non-HE funding; it outlines the evidence for each policy option, before setting out recommendations on how the government should proceed.
You can download the full report here.
Proposals from the government and opposition parties to reduce or abolish tuition fees, or lower interest rates, would have a regressive impact.
- Most of the high profile options for reform would benefit higher earners, and have little impact on improving education access or quality.
- The government should publish a full analysis of the impact of any changes to fees and student finance, setting out the distributional effects on high and low earners, and those not in higher education.
- The cost to the taxpayer of abolishing tuition fees entirely would be substantial, with higher earning graduates as the main beneficiaries. There is little evidence that this would increase the participation of disadvantaged students.
To help address inequities between higher and further education funding, maintenance loans should be extended to 19-23 year olds pursuing vocational, level 3 qualifications.
- The government should offer more financial support to those pursuing study outside of higher education. Currently, vocational learners are not entitled to maintenance loans.
- Extending such loans would encourage more school leavers to take this route – which offers a significant wage premium, at a relatively small cost to the taxpayer.
The government should avoid a system in which tuition fees vary by subject or university.
- Proponents argue that varying tuition fees could encourage students towards courses with greater labour market demand, ensure tuition fees align better with future earnings, or better reflect the cost of running courses. But as these aims often conflict, it is not possible to deliver them all simultaneously.
- Varying fees by subject to steer students toward high demand courses has been ineffective when applied in other countries, with demand largely unresponsive to changes in price.
- Varying fees by institution may entrench inequality. Rewarding high graduate returns with extra funding may penalise institutions with high proportions of disadvantaged students.
- While varying fees to better reflect course running costs is workable, lowering fees across-the-board, with teaching grants topping up funding in more costly subjects, seems more feasible. This is less likely to discourage students from taking up costly courses, such as nursing.
Imposing a minimum academic standard to access university loans – a ‘UCAS tariff floor’ – should not be introduced without strong evidence that the majority of those denied loans would be better off pursuing other education routes.
- While students who would be prevented from accessing loans are more likely to have poorer outcomes at university, evidence suggests that a significant proportion still benefit from a bachelor’s degree: two-thirds who complete their studies go on to secure a first or upper second class degree.
- There is no evidence that such students would be better off in other education routes. Such routes are often lower-funded and poorly-signposted.
- A UCAS tariff floor would also disproportionately penalise those from disadvantaged backgrounds, undermining the government’s core aim of widening university participation.
- If the government did eventually proceed with this policy, there would be a strong case for using any savings to boost the attainment of disadvantaged students in schools.
All policy recommendations
Read the full version of these recommendations here.
Reducing tuition fees: If the government does decide to reduce overall tuition fee levels, the reduction should be at least partially offset by increasing teaching grants, with priority given to high-cost subjects.
Abolishing tuition fees: The government is right not to consider abolishing tuition fees. Improved university access could be better delivered by more targeted investments to boost part-time and mature student participation and reduce the attainment gap at school.
Changing the student loan terms: The government should be clear on the distributional impact of its proposed changes on different groups of earners and should publish a detailed assessment alongside the review recommendations.
Reintroducing maintenance grants: There is no clear evidence that restoring maintenance grants will increase participation of more disadvantaged students. The government must develop a new strategy to boost its widening participation agenda. While the rate at which disadvantaged students entering university continues to increase, the ‘participation gap’, comparing the proportion of the most affluent students entering university, against the least well-off, has failed to narrow.
Education pathways for those leaving school
Introducing a minimum academic standard to access student loans: A tariff floor should not be introduced without robust evidence that a significant majority of those affected would be better off pursuing alternative education or training pathways. In the meantime, the government should monitor the impact of the Office for Students (OfS) in properly regulating entry standards and protecting the interests of students.
Financial support for those taking vocational qualifications: The government should offer maintenance loans to young adults pursuing a first full level 3 qualification.
Part-time and mature study
Reducing part-time tuition fees: If the government does not make an across-the-board reduction in fees, it should consider introducing a teaching grant to lower tuition fee levels for part-time students.
Easing Equivalent and Lower Qualification (ELQ) funding restrictions: The government should introduce further ELQ exemptions in fields of study with high returns or strong labour market demand.
Download the full report here.