Theresa May's university fees review risks 'imploding at birth' amid mounting criticism

Lizzy Buchan, Eleanor Busby

Theresa May’s major review of student finance risks “imploding at birth” amid mounting criticism that moves to overhaul post-18 education could price poorer students out of studying certain courses.

Labour former education minister Lord Adonis, one of the architects of tuition fees, said it would be a “big backwards step” to cut the cost of courses with lower-earning potential such as arts and humanities degrees, as it could deter people from studying vital subjects such as medicine and engineering.

Attempts to link degrees to earning potential were condemned as ”deeply flawed” as the plan fails to take in other factors affecting graduate income, the University and College Union (UCU) said.

The Prime Minister outlined concerns that the further education system is not working in a major speech today, where she admitted that allowing universities to charge variable fees had failed to create a ”competitive” market, leaving Britain with ”one of the most expensive systems” in the world.

The Government-led review will examine all aspects of student funding, including maintenance grants to help with the cost of living, but some of the proposals have already come under attack over concerns they could damage social mobility.

Lord Adonis tweeted: “Review imploding at birth – No 10, Treasury and DfE [Department for Education] at odds on its very purpose. DfE in pocket of the vice-chancellors, who want no real change.”

He later told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think if you started imposing a penalty for studying some of the toughest courses there are to study – medicine, engineering, science – this would be a big backwards step.

“We need more engineers and scientists in our community, we don’t need fewer of them at the moment, so I don’t support that.”

The Labour peer called for a return to fees of £3,000 a year and said universities had become “extremely bloated” due to the hike in fees, resulting in sky-high salaries for vice chancellors and management staff.

Union leaders said the review was simply another way to cut spending and urged the Government to undertake a major overhaul of higher education, rather than “tweak the existing broken system”.

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, told The Independent: “Linking the price of some degrees to earnings potential is deeply flawed and fails to acknowledge the many factors which affect graduate income.

“Plans to boost vocational learning will also fail unless the Government is willing to invest in colleges and reverse damaging cuts which have weakened the further education sector.

“Instead of exploring ways to tweak the existing broken system which is amongst in the most expensive in the world, the review needs to take a serious look at how to ensure our colleges and universities are properly funded.”

Ana Oppenheim, who sits on the National Union of Students executive committee, said: ‘We can’t accept education being reduced to a financial transaction that forces students to make decisions about their future according to the cost of their course.

“It’s impossible to calculate the value of a degree whether to the student or to wider society in pounds: higher education, like all levels of education, should be paid for by taxing the richest in our society. A fudge vaguely in the direction of a graduate tax is not going to cut it.”

The Prime Minister also faced criticism from her own benches, as former Education Secretary Justine Greening said it was time to ”stop kicking around student finance like a political football and for young people really get to grips with one of the reforms that are now needed”.

However, another former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, defended plans consider linking fees to earning potential, and admitted ministers had “naively” believed that allowing universities to charge different fees would bring in more competition.

“Going back to a blanket cut of just over £6,000 for every course, I think we would be right back to having university funding as a political football,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Of course, looking at the amount charged for different courses is the right thing to do.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, said: “Future success depends on universities having stable and sustainable funding – which the current system provides.

“This review is the opportunity to examine the evidence and to make improvements.

“Crucially, the current system could be better understood and feel fairer to students. Injecting new investment to help the poorest students with their living costs and tackling the decline in mature and part-time study must be priorities.”

The Prime Minister used the speech in Derbyshire to encourage a shift in the “outdated attitude” that prizes academic qualifications over technical skills.

Britain needs an education system that is “more flexible and diverse than it is today”, she said, and set out a vision for access to university education that is not dependent on background, with a greater focus on technical alternatives such as apprenticeships.

Ideas being considered include giving better careers guidance about future earnings potential and the kinds of qualifications that will be needed.

The review, expected to conclude in 2019, will also consider how to support lifelong learning to help people retrain.