May says abolishing tuition fees not the answer as review into post-18 education launched

Alan McGuinness, Political Reporter

Theresa May hit out at Labour's pledge to abolish university tuition fees as she unveiled a wide-ranging review of post-18 education.

The Prime Minister said such a move would push up taxes, leave universities competing with the likes of schools and the NHS for cash and result in a cap on student numbers being reintroduced.

"That is not my idea of a fair or progressive system," Mrs May said at a speech from a college in Derby.

She added that it was her belief that "those who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it".

Mrs May also admitted her predecessor David Cameron's decision to treble tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year had failed to create a "competitive market" in higher education.

"All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses," she said.

"Three year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course."

She touched upon her "first steps into politics" as a councillor and chair of the education authority in Merton, south London, to declare that "the needs of every child and young person deserve to be met".

Sky News asked Mrs May why she did not take action immediately to reduce interest rates on debts and reinstate maintenance grants.

She said: "We've already taken some action. We took action to raise the threshold - the point at which people would start to pay back - from £21,000 to £25,000, and we took action to freeze the level of fees."

Labour said the review was an "unnecessary waste of time", with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner declaring: "Theresa May has finally admitted that her Government got it wrong."

Jeremy Corbyn's fees promise has piled pressure on the Conservatives to act, amid concerns about the debt burden on graduates.

Universities in England can currently charge up to £9,250 a year in fees, with the £3,000 cap being lifted in 2012.

The decision to abolish maintenance grants and replace them with loans has also sparked concern, with claims the policy hits the poorest students the hardest and saddles them with more debt.

The prospect of fees for certain kinds of courses being reduced has been raised by Education Secretary Damian Hinds, while the Government has confirmed the interest rates charged on loans will be examined.

But Mrs May was at pains to stress that the review would consider post-18 education as a whole, challenging the "outdated" view that only academic degrees are worthwhile.

The PM said Britain needed an education system that is "more flexible and diverse than it is today", with university often considered the best option for young people by default.

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