Theresa May announces plan to slash tuition fees as experts warn policy does not 'add up'

Sky NewsPrime Minister Theresa May speaking in Derbyshire on Monday afternoon.
  • Theresa May announces plans to review the entire post-18 education system.
  • The prime minister says English students face one of the world’s most expensive systems and hints fees could be slashed for certain degrees, like in arts and social sciences.
  • However, MPs and experts have warned that the plans could worsen social mobility.
  • May adds that too much emphasis is placed on academic degrees and not enough on technical qualifications.

LONDON – Theresa May has announced plans to consider slashing the cost of certain university degrees, admitting that English students face one of the “most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”

The prime minister used a speech in Derbyshire on Monday to declare that the current system of variable tuition fees has failed to create the “competitive market” originally envisaged and has led to some degrees being overpriced.

“The competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged has simply not emerged,” May said this afternoon.

“All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses. Three-year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged does not relate to the cost or quality of the course.

“We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”

May also questioned “outdated” attitudes towards technical qualifications, and suggested the current system of post-18 learning is weighted too heavily in favour of academic degrees, with not enough emphasis on technical education.

The government will encourage people to “throw away” the idea that university is the only desirable route for young people and vocational training “something for other people’s children,” the prime minister said.

She added that she wanted to challenge a culture in which “everything points to university as the default” for young people.

May announced that a new review into the education system will consider all aspects of post-18 education.

“We must have an education system at all levels which serve the need of every child… it’s clear that we don’t have such a system today,” the prime minister said, adding that she wanted to create an education system “flexible enough to make sure everyone has an education which suits them.”

The year-long review is set to explore whether the maintenance grant for the poorest students should be restored after it was scrapped in 2015. It will also look at whether universities should cut fees for degrees with lower earning potential, such as in the arts and social sciences.

Fees charged for certain degrees often do “not relate to the cost or quality of the course,” May said.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds hinted that certain degrees could be made cheaper than others in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday.

Hinds said: “What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing, so the cost to put on the course, the value it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future.”

Justine Greening, who Hinds replaced as education secretary in May’s most recent reshuffle, warned on Sunday that the plans risked exacerbating social mobility by herding students from poorer families into cheaper degrees.

She told Robert Peston: “The thing that really matters from my perspective is social mobility and making sure we don’t end up with a system where young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds feel like they ought to do one of the cheaper degrees, rather than doing the degree they actually want that will unlock their potential in the future.”

Mark Leach, chief executive of the Wonkhe think tank, which focuses on higher education, said the prime minister’s plans “don’t add up” and could do “serious damage” to the sector.

The plans have also irked Conservative-backing newspapers.

The Telegraph has published an opinion piece titled “Let the market decide university tuition fees”which lambastes the proposal to reduce fees for certain courses and warns the plans “risk compounding past mistakes.”

May used her speech to criticise Labour’s pledge to scrap all tuition fees. She said that abolishing all fees would mean tax hikes for the majority of people who didn’t attend university and force universities to compete with public services for funding.

Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, described the review as a “waste of time.”

“Theresa May has finally admitted that her Government got it wrong. They trebled tuition fees, abolished maintenance grants and left students graduating with debts of up to £57,000,” the Labour MP said.

“This long-winded review is an unnecessary waste of time. Labour will abolish tuition fees, bring back maintenance grants and provide free, lifelong education in Further Education colleges.”

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