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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Tuition fees should be capped at as low as £5,000 and the interest rate on student loans lowered to match inflation levels, according to a report published by the free-market think tank the Centre for Policy Studies.
The report by the former investment banker Michael Johnson who ran David Cameron’s Economic Competitiveness Policy Group accuses the government of missing a chance to take more radical action on tuition fees by deciding to freeze them at £9,250.
The fees freeze was announced at the Conservative Party conference by Prime Minister Theresa May, along with an increase in the salary threshold at which students have to start repaying their loans from £21,000 to £25,000. She also announced a major review of university funding, looking at issues such as how to vary the fees charged for each course.
Although the rise in the loans repayment threshold is “an acknowledgement that a fairer funding split between students and the state is required”, it could in practice see student debt write-offs sky-rocket and create a financial time bomb for future taxpayers, according to Johnson, a CPS fellow.
While the Government estimates that one-third of student loans will have to be written off, Johnson calculates the figure at more like 60 per cent or even possibly 75 per cent.
His report, Tuition Fees: A Fairer Fomula, adds: “Cutting the interest rate and the fee cap would lower students’ headline debt burden, and cause expected write-offs to plummet. This would be greatly appreciated by prospective students, and would simplify the student loan framework.”The current repayment threshold should be maintained, says the report. A lower fees cap of £7,500, or even £5,000, together with a reduced loans interest rate, would lower the debt burden for graduates and ensure that the Government gets more of its money back.
The proposals would create a funding gap for universities, Johnson acknowledges, which would need to be filled by central government. He recommends mitigating the costs by separating teaching from research, and treating research as investment rather than expenditure.
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