The Tory budget announces higher fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants

Rich Universities like Oxford will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation

Rich Universities like Oxford will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation

James Elliott, NCAFC National Committee

George Osborne announced the Tories’ latest attack on higher education in today’s budget, announcing that for some institutions fees will rise in line with inflation, and also that grants will be abolished for the poorest students.

Osborne’s budget document states measures will, “include allowing institutions offering high teaching quality to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with a consultation on the mechanisms to do this.”

This is in line with concerns about new Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s speech to Universities UK last week, where he talked about ‘incentives’ for quality teaching, and said that they will be published in a Green Paper in the autumn, usually a precursor to primary legislation – in the form of a bill that will become an Act of Parliament. Tuition fee hikes require such an Act, so this was a clear indicator from Johnson that this could happen.

This is directly linked to Jo Johnson’s Teaching Excellence Framework, which will assess the teaching quality at institutions based on ‘outcome-focused’ metrics which Johnson explicitly said will include employment data. This is likely to mean that graduate earnings will be used to “prove” quality teaching, and that those institutions where students go on to get the best-paying jobs such as Oxford, Cambridge and London colleges, will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation.

The Times Higher Education’s John Morgan analysed what this might mean, predicting that once the Conservatives have passed “English Votes for English Laws”, they may be in a better position to get a rise in fees for English universities through Parliament, and then those that do well in his new Teaching Excellence Framework may be allowed to raise fees.

The other, uglier possibility of this, is that Johnson and Osborne are openly goading students and the NUS with the talk of higher fees to see what our response is, and if it is muted silence and a few grumbles – they will give in to what their Vice-Chancellor friends have been demanding for years, and allow a rise in fees to £11,000 (Labour’s guess at Tories’ desires before the election), £16,000 (Oxford’s demand), or beyond that towards uncapped fees (as the Browne report in 2010 recommended).

In addition to this news on fees, Osborne announced a cut in grants. The Budget stated, “From the 2016‐17 academic year, maintenance grants will be replaced with maintenance loans for new students from England, paid back only when their earnings exceed £21,000 a year, saving £2.5 billion by 2020‐21.” Currently, students in England and Wales from families with annual household incomes of £25,000 or less qualify for maintenance grants of £3,387 a year, then if the family’s income is £30,000, the grant falls to £2,441; at £35,000 to £1,494 and at £40,000 to £547. It is not paid when household income is more than £42,620. This is a direct swipe at the poorest students in education, and makes a mockery of Tories’ talk about ‘access’ and increasing the number of working-class students in education by 2020.

Naturally, in NCAFC we think that all problems caused by the rising costs of student loans and the expanding costs of education as more people continue study can be solved easily: by taking the vast amounts of wealth in the pockets of the rich and business into democratic control by heavily taxing them and using those taxes to pay for high-quality, lifelong learning for everyone. Education should be free to all, including living grants, so that students leave without debt.

That vision is anathema to the party of finance capital, and ‘too radical’ for the increasingly-conservative Labour leadership. We will only see the society we want if we resist these attacks on education, starting with this budget announcement.

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