As published in The Times Higher Education:
Conservative MP David Davis has predicted that the review of post-18 education in England will “look harder at variable fees” but has warned of the “headlines” that would follow if the reform led to the closure of some universities.
The former Brexit secretary, who voted against the trebling of fees to £9,000 in 2010 and has previously called for the cancellation of student debt, also called for the review to lighten the “burden” of student borrowing at a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on 26 March.
Mr Davis was asked by Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman whether he thought any recommendation from the review to lower fees to £7,500 across the board would make it through Parliament.
“I would think it would fail in the Commons and indeed in the Lords,” Mr Davis replied.
A lowering of the fee cap is one recommendation expected from the review’s independent panel, led by Philip Augar. But some in the sector also expect that the overall level of funding may only be reduced for lower-cost arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, while being increased for highercost STEM subjects.
Mr Davis said that “my hunch on the reverberations that have come out [about the review]…is that he [Mr Augar] is going to look harder at variable fees”.
The Tory backbencher added that Mr Augar “is going to have to think about viability of institutions in those circumstances with all of the huge front page Daily Mail headlines that would follow the closure of an institution or two”.
“The other thing I think he’s going to have to deal with and will deal with…is the perverse incentives whereby the highest margin courses – the ones that are profitable – are those with the least costs,” said Mr Davis. This led to “expansion in courses which may be the least valued”, he added.
Mr Augar had to address “more than just one issue”, and another “massively important” area is the loan repayments faced by graduates in the “25 to 45” age bracket and “taking off them the burden of huge uncertainty and financial repression”, said Mr Davis.
He added: “In the last election it wasn’t the students who voted critically for Jeremy Corbyn. It was the 25-45 age group, for which this [loan repayments] is one problem.”
This issue “was material, and it mattered to young people who have gone through a higher education system which they thought would equip them for life, and it left them with a liability which they weren’t sure of and a future which they weren’t sure of at the same time”, he added.
Mr Hillman agreed that this would be a key area of interest. “My guess would be that the Augar review will include lots of things we haven’t expected, and repayment terms could be one. In my opinion, there are more politics in the repayment phase than in the student phase,” he said.
Mr Davis concluded: “I’m a fan of Augar. I think Philip has seized on the importance of this [higher education and student funding]. He’s a very sharp individual. And I think it’s probably going to be a good outcome.”