The future of higher education funding is up for grabs
Students deserve a better deal and universities need financial certainty to maintain our research excellence. We must get funding decisions right, says Daniel Zeichner MP
For politicians of my generation, student funding has been a near-perpetual political football. It’s time we called a truce and sought a better way forward.
Back in 1997 the Labour government was right to address the chronic underfunding of the sector, but the backlash in the 2001 election led to further changes which in turn caused political problems in 2005.
The subsequent promise by the Liberal Democrats to abolish tuition fees was followed by the fateful decision by the coalition government to triple them, with dire consequences for those held responsible.
By 2015 Labour had promised to reduce fees, and the 2017 pledge to abolish them, thought by some to be responsible for popularity with young people, panicked Theresa May into setting up the Augar review. Widely praised for stressing the importance of further education, that review left universities fearing funding cuts, and it remains unimplemented.
After the thumping win for the Conservatives last December, the political imperatives have changed – so where do we go next?
Now is a good time to think afresh. There is widespread agreement over intergenerational unfairness and the raw deal that today’s young people are getting compared to their predecessors. Although student debt has not damaged participation in the way some feared, international trends reflect a move away from individualised high levels of debt.
'The danger is that we end up with ‘free’ higher education, but woefully underfunded universities.'
It may not be immediately essential for the Government, but younger people continue to vote Labour, and a Conservative party with its eye on the future will need to widen its appeal – so no change may not be an option.
Whatever the politics, getting the balance right between taxpayer, individual and business contribution is a debate to be revisited, and many will argue that some of that resource should shift to assisting in maintenance costs, not just fee reduction.
But if the public think only of student fees and support as the issue – and according to pollsters, they do – there is a wider question of securing the future of all our universities.
For those who want fee cuts, the challenge is to guarantee that the shortfall will be met. The danger is that we end up back where we started in the 1990s with ‘free’ higher education, but woefully underfunded universities. English commentators often remain ignorant of the different experiences in Scotland and Wales – but they can shed some light on the issues.
Add to this the Conservative manifesto promise to crack down on ‘low-quality’ courses, and it is clear why some in the sector feel besieged.
Institutions under fire rightly respond that they are reaching many more challenging students who would have been excluded from opportunities in the past – but any cuts to overall funding for the sector risk putting already financially-stretched institutions in even greater peril.
A third piece in the jigsaw is funding for research. Leaving the EU is a bitter blow for many who have benefited from the UK’s hugely successful research record. The Government promises that it is seeking full access to the Horizon Europe programme, but there is much scepticism, and the fall-off in collaborations is already setting UK universities back.
Decisions will now be made in the UK, but as the Adrian Smith review demonstrated, there are big political decisions ahead on the balance of how that funding will be distributed. Some fear that the evidence-based approach adopted by the EU may be distorted by politically-driven priorities in future.
The future of HE funding is complicated, potentially highly politically contested, and up for grabs. Students deserve a better deal, while universities need more certainty and security to be able to make sensible decisions, and maintain our research excellence. Given that universities are one of our great success stories, we need to get it right.
Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge