By Nadine White
University tuition costs could be cut to £6,500 under proposals from a commission established by Theresa May to devise plans for reforms to higher education.
The Treasury would have to pay £3 billion a year to implement this move – which would lead to either a cap on student numbers or a third less income from fees for universities.
University vice-chancellors, politicians and higher education experts are reportedly critical of the proposal, warning that it could threaten social mobility and force struggling institutions to close.
Earlier this week, news emerged that struggling universities are facing bankruptcy with growing numbers of institutions resorting to short-term financial loans to stay afloat.
Reasons for this include increased competition for students, falling numbers of 18-year-olds and tighter immigration controls on international students.
The prime minister came under pressure on the issue after Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish tuition fees won support from young voters in last year’s general election. It is widely believed that Mrs May wants to attract the youth vote by promising a cut in fees.
Responding to reports about the tuition fees reduction, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner MP said: “We need radical change in our education system, not tinkering around the edges.
“The next Labour Government will deliver our fully-costed plan to scrap tuition fees in universities and further education colleges as well as restoring maintenance grants and the EMA to make our system of student finance fair and sustainable”.
An early draft suggests cutting tuition fees to between £6,500 and £7,500 a year, with the shortfall made up by the Treasury, according to The Times.
There is speculation as to whether or not the chancellor will agree to offering financial backing to this measure.
Tuition fees were tripled to £9,000 in September 2012, and increased to £9,250 in 2016.
Students from the EU, who pay the same £9,250-a-year fees as those in England or £9,000 in Wales, may have to pay higher fees under a new system if they were charged the same as international undergraduates. These fees range from £9,000 to more than £35,000 a year, depending on the course and the university. The average amount is currently £12,000.
According to The Times, Vice-chancellors suspect that if the Treasury is asked to make up the difference universities will face cuts in the long run as they fight for funding alongside schools, defence, health and crime. One said that universities feared the worst “if it became a choice between dying babies and medieval French”.
He said: “It puts funding of universities in competition with health and defence. Over time it would be insane to think we would keep all that [funding]. They would have to do something to limit the cost to the public purse so that would lead to number controls. How do you do a five-year forecast if you don’t know how many students there are?”
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of leading universities, said: “Reducing funding for teaching would impact directly on the student experience, leading to higher student-to-staff ratios, less hands-on lab and practical work and student services stretched past breaking point.
“If these reports are correct, students, parents and universities will need a cast-iron guarantee from government that it will introduce teaching grants to fully cover the shortfall and meet future demand. Those grants would need to be on a per student basis.”
Many experts believe that the review will recommend that fees vary depending on courses.
The Department for Education said that it would not be drawn on speculation about the Augar review.
A spokesman said: ‘People are rightly concerned about value for money, that’s why we’re reforming the system to make it fairer. We have already increased the repayment threshold for graduates and are open-minded in our approach.’