Theresa May’s tuition fee reform: a review for better or worse?

By Christian Carungcong

When Philip Hammond, the country’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his first Autumn Budget last November he promised a potential restructuring of tuition fees for university students across England. At a Conservative Party Conference, the month prior to the Chancellor’s annual Autumnal Statement, the Prime Minister Theresa May also announced that tuition fees would remain frozen at £9,250 a year and the repayment threshold could be increased from £21,000 to £25,000.

The natural backdrop to the Conservative Party’s attempt to woo over students follows on from the popularity that the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn seems to have found with students and, most notably, the party’s pledge to abolish tuition fees altogether and reintroduce maintenance grants. Alongside rising executive vice-chancellor pay within universities, the Conservatives policies have unsurprisingly found them to be less popular with students.

On Monday, May announced in a speech in Derby that she was going to press ahead with her plans to reform the loan system. This reform program was underpinned by the purported belief that graduate debt had risen to unhealthy levels that were towards £50,000 and up to £57,000 for the poorest students. It is a job that the Prime Minister has committed herself to doing.

It was hoped that May’s plans for restructuring the loan system would increase the Conservative’s popularity with students, yet it has all seemingly backfired. Suggestions that the review seeks to address, are what both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor made last year, but also that interest rates on tuition fee loans could be decreased from the current 6.1% rate.

But the main sticking point for the Prime Minister is the proposed introduction of variable fees for different courses; the parameters of these fees are to be determined by factors such as the cost of putting a course on in the first place, potential graduate earnings and the economic value to the country.

The courses that appear to be affected are the social science and humanities courses whose fees may be decreased, with science courses’ fees to be increased. Yet worries and fears have flared as a response to the Prime Minister’s proposals. While they do aim to decrease tuition fees for some courses, an explicit feeling is that they are to be another gateway towards the creation of a two-tier system at the tertiary level of education.

The consequences of these plans have been criticised by many people across the spectrum of university education. A statement by Bill Rammell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire argued that: “You can’t judge the value of education based on the salary someone is going to earn or else no one would choose to be a nurse or work in the arts if that was the case.” Rammell’s main fear, along with others who have criticised the Prime Minister’s proposals, is the potential creation of a “two-tier system” where: “students from poorer families will choose those courses with the lowest fees disadvantaging themselves from the start.”

Even within the Prime Minister’s own party, there appears to be a rift as to the popularity of her proposals. Justine Greening, the former Education Secretary who was sacked in January for not being pliable to May’s plans, has soundly criticised the proposals by saying: “The thing that really matters from my perspective is social mobility, and making sure we don’t end up with a system where young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds feel like they ought to do one of the cheaper degrees, rather than doing the degree they actually want that will unlock their potential future.”

The embattled Prime Minister finds herself in an even tougher position than before. This review was her attempt to bring herself back from the brink, for her to be remembered as more than the Prime Minister of Brexit. She had successfully shifted headlines away from Brexit, only to fall at another hurdle. Yet as things stand, it is doubtful as to whether she can even get either job done.