What could happen to the cost of university after the election?

David Kingman looks at the confusion over what Labour are offering as a their main alternative to the Coalition’s policy of making students pay £9,000 per year in tuition feesgraduation cap  on a pile of money ( student debt )

Students could be a powerful voting bloc at the next general election, as a study from the Higher Education Policy Institute suggested last December. They claimed that students have historically tended to be highly influenced by each party’s policies on higher education and tuition fees, with many commentators suggesting the Liberal Democrats will suffer a disproportionate loss of support in May because they went back on the pre-election pledge they made in 2010 not to increase fees if they ended up in government.

It’s clear that the Conservatives aren’t going to radically alter the new system they have implemented, which, they would argue, have enabled record numbers of students to enrol at university this year. However, recent events have shown that there is still plenty of confusion over what Labour can offer as an alternative.

Lower fees or a graduate tax?

Labour have prevaricated over officially unveiling a policy on tuition fees, although Mark Leach, a former advisor to the party on higher education policy, makes it clear on his blog that different factions within the party support either a reduction in full-time undergraduate tuition fees to £6,000 per year, the introduction of a “graduate tax” as an alternative to tuition fees, or some combination of the two.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the shadow chancellor Ed Balls gave a trenchant summary of his party’s critique of the current system which the Coalition has introduced:

“We were told that the increase in fees to £9,000 would save money for taxpayers, save billions and deliver a good deal. What we’ve seen is graduate contributions go up by over 50%, graduates paying for their fees, we’ve seen money for universities go up by 28%, but it turns out it’s costing taxpayers more, not less, and the truth is we’re now in a position where almost half of students aren’t repaying fees because they don’t earn enough in their lifetime … There is a huge looming charge for taxpayers in the future.”

Critics of the Coalition’s policies can also point to research by economics think tank the Institute of Fiscal Studies which has suggested that the typical student will graduate with debts worth around £44,000, and the amount of debt (owed by graduates to the government) which will need to be written off could total over 45%.

The crucial issue for voters who want to protest about the Coalition’s reforms is whether any of the proposed alternative options are realistic. How do they stack up?

A £10 billion black hole?

Both of the alternative funding options which are apparently being considered by the Labour party have their critics.

In a public display of protest, the board of Universities UK (which represents university vice-chancellors) published a letter in The Times in which they argued that lowering tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 per year would create a £10 billion shortfall in university funding, which the government would have to cover. The letter warns that such a scenario would lead to “cuts to universities that would damage the economy, affect the quality of students’ education, and set back work on widening access to higher education”.

On the subject of a graduate tax, Vince Cable, the Coalition minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, recently wrote an article in The Guardian in which he claimed that such a tax would be unnecessary because higher-earning graduates are already set to repay more under the new system the Coalition has created. There is the practical difficulty that a graduate tax wouldn’t produce new funding until today’s graduates are earning enough to pay it – again, requiring more direct government funding in the meanwhile.

The main problem seems to be that both options – lowering tuition fees or a graduate tax – would require the government to spend more up-front on universities, which produces the wrong result from an accounting perspective (more direct funding would add to the national debt, whereas issuing student loans is treated as creating assets in the government’s accounts), and would also have to be justified at a time when all the major parties are committed to cutting expenditure on other things.

Mark Leach, Labour’s former higher education advisor, predicts in his blog that if the party wins power it would probably try to avoid making a decision by creating a higher education commission to research the feasibility of introducing a graduate tax – effectively kicking the issue into the long grass.

Although the current system is unpopular with many students and parts of the higher education sector, whether any of the opposition parties can come up with a credible alternative to galvanise voters remains to be seen.