By Declan Carey
THE trail of destruction following the Government’s decision to triple university tuition fees in 2012 grows longer each year.
Pushing fees to £9000 per year of study has burdened a generation of bright minds with unimaginable debt and shut out the poorest families from higher education.
10 years ago the estimated average debt stood at £15,000 per graduate according to Parliament’s Student Loan Statistics report.
Today that figure has climbed to £40,000 for new students, and more than £50,000 for those without family support who rely on Student Finance.
But how did it come to this?
Tuition fees in the UK go back to 1998 when the Labour Party introduced a £1000 repayment for graduates.
Before then, many people were fully supported through their university studies by the Education Act 1962 which emphasised Britain’s need for higher education.
In other words, politicians who enjoyed free access to university lecture halls pulled up the ladder behind them – and it only got worse from there.
Fees increased again in 2006 to £3000, before the coalition Government decided in 2012 to squeeze undergraduates further, tripling tuition to £9000 per year.
The number of students enrolled in university courses plummeted that year and has yet to recover.
The Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) found more than 100,000 fewer students were enrolled in undergraduate study in 2012 compared to 2011.
Part of that first cohort in 2012, going to university was a deeply contentious issue for me.
When the change came we were told the £9000 fee would only apply to universities who offered exceptional contact time and facilities, but it wouldn’t be standard.
Yet Parliament’s Tuition Fee Statistics report shows that the average fees paid in 2016/2017 academic year reached almost £8,900.
Even now, the Government’s website claims that fees can be ‘up to £9,250.’
More problematic though, was the way in which the maintenance grant, a lifeline for many students whose families could not provide financial support, was scrapped in 2016.
The grant, which did not need to be repaid, was vital in ensuring people could find proper accommodation and live without worrying where the next meal would come from.
Without that support, students were left with no choice other than to accrue a level of debt not comparable to other nations just to get by.
Indeed, within the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) group, England charges the highest annual average tuition fees in the developed world.
And sadly, that has led to fewer students from EU countries choosing to study here.
In September 2011, 64,765 EU students were enrolled in first-year undergraduate courses in the UK according to the HESA.
But that number dropped to 57,195 once the higher fees came into force, reducing the mix of cultures which makes the university experience so special.
That anyone should finish their university studies with levels of debt so high that most will struggle to earn enough to pay it back is unsustainable and cruel.
Unfortunately, Government failure to adequately support young people has been in the news again recently, with this year’s A Level results fiasco resulting in panic and chaos at what is already an incredibly tense moment in life.
Grades awarded ‘based on teachers’ judgements – either wholly, or in combination with the statistics’ punished students from disadvantaged backgrounds yet again, leading to an apology from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.
Successive governments have failed to deliver fair and open education systems which offer young people opportunities to get on in life.
YouGov data from the 2019 election showed that age is the biggest dividing line between voters in the UK – and it’s easy to see why.
Yet voter registration among young people is increasing fast, with several thousand registering in the days following A Level results day.
Punishing ambitious young people is no longer an acceptable strategy for solving Britain’s problems.
And when a government realises that and begins to work with young people and not against them, this country will see the fast and progressive change it needs.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want all young people to be able to choose whichever path works best for them and their future, which is why up-front loans are available to all students regardless of background or financial history.
“Students repay their loans based on a proportion of their monthly income, not on the amount borrowed or interest rate, and any outstanding amount is written off at the end of the loan term. The amount graduates need to earn before they start repaying their loan will also rise from April to £27,295.
“We are considering the recommendations of the Augar Report as part of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, and plan to respond at the forthcoming Spending Review.”
The Labour Party were contacted for comment.
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