Tuition fees are a 'pointless Ponzi scheme', says PM's former top aide Nick Timothy

Posted On: 
17th August 2017

University fees are a “pointless Ponzi scheme”, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff said as he called for a radical rethink on higher education. 

Nick Timothy stood down as Theresa May's chief of staff after the election
Credit: 
PA Images

Nick Timothy also attacked the “university gravy train”, under which vice-chancellors are paid up to £451,000 a year.

Some 200,000 students are to receive their A-Level results today and he said it is “difficult” not to worry about their future.

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Mr Timothy said successive governments have been “mistaken”, as encouraging people to go to university does not necessarily promote economic growth.

The former adviser - who quit Downing Street along with fellow joint chief of staff Fiona Hill after the general election - called for more sub-degree technical qualifications that would be shorter and cheaper than a full degree.

Mr Timothy pointed to the number of graduates in non-graduate jobs and said “certain degree subjects offer no return on investment, while studies show there are entire universities where average graduate earnings 10 years after study are less than those of non‑graduates”.

He wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Tuition fees were supposed to make university funding fairer for the taxpayer, but more than three quarters of graduates will never pay back their debts. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates that student loans will add 11.1 per cent of GDP to the national debt by the late 2030s.

“We have created an unsustainable and ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme, and young people know it. With average debts of £50,000, graduates in England are the most indebted in the developed world. Even if they do not pay off the full amount, graduates face dramatic increases in marginal tax rates as their earnings increase.”

Ministers have been under pressure to take action on the soaring levels of graduate debt, as tuition fees rise above £9,000 for the first time and grants for poorer students are replaced by loans.

Labour has been pressing the Government on the cost of higher education after its election pledge to abolish tuition fees.

Mr Timothy also mused:  “On a recent visit to the barber, the young man who cut my hair told me he had graduated from Southampton Solent University with a degree in football studies.

“He was friendly, articulate and skilled in his profession, but I doubted whether he thought his qualification was worth the debt he will carry as a millstone around his neck for 30 years.

“Today, hundreds of thousands of young people receive their A-level results, and it is difficult not to worry about their future. The fortunate among them – those studying at the best universities and taking the best courses – may go on to prosper.

“But those who choose the wrong institutions and courses will see little benefit, while those who do not go to university – still a majority of young people – will be neglected.” 

He added:“Well-paid vice chancellors will protest, but the gravy train exposed by Lord Adonis, the architect of tuition fees, must be stopped. Universities might be independent organisations, but many are charities that have lost sight of their charitable purpose. And they are wholly dependent on financial arrangements that are set by the Government, underwritten by the taxpayer, and blight young people’s futures.”