Theresa May’s last-ditch calls for a shake-up of university tuition fees would exacerbate the problems in higher education, according to architecture students and lecturers
A government-backed report, published today (30 May) recommends measures including re-introducing £3,000 maintenance grant payments and cutting yearly fees from £9,250 to £7,500.
Launching the report at the Policy Exchange think-tank in Westminster, the outgoing prime minister voiced support for the review and admitted the scrapping of maintenance grants in 2015 had not worked.
However, the Post-18 Education and Funding review, led by Philip Augar, also recommends extending repayments for up to 40, rather than the present 30 years, a move which would relieve the debt burden on graduates but see them making higher total repayments over a longer period.
The extended repayment period would see most graduates paying off their student loans until they reached their 60s, argued Fionn Stevenson, a design professor at the University of Sheffield.
She added: ’Graduates would also be charged at interest rates based on inflation plus 3 per cent, so this would be a highly regressive move, as the poorest students end up paying more, while students from a wealthier background pay less, as usual.’
Harriet Harriss, a principal lecturer in Architecture at Oxford Brookes University, said that reducing fees at the same time as extending the repayment term ‘exacerbates the problem’, pointing out that 77 per cent of poorer students were unable to pay off debt until 30 years after graduating.
She said: ‘Student debt is often wrongly assumed to be a problem for individual students and their families, but it damages our economy, too. Financial analysts are already insisting that student debt will trigger the next big financial crash, following in the wake of the banking crisis.
’There are far less wealthy nations than the UK that recognise free education as an investment in the future economy, not an individual privilege or liability. We need a fresh mindset, one where treating future generations with so much disregard is no longer acceptable, and a new education policy to follow.’
Simon Warren, senior lecturer at Leeds School of Architecture, said the review’s recommendations were ‘tinkering around the edges’, dressed up as ’significant change to support poorer students’.
Our current system fails our young people by turning education into a commodity
He said: ‘Students in the UK pay far more for their education than nearly all students in European countries. In many, such as Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Poland, students do not pay tuition fees. Our current system fails our young people by turning education into a commodity.’
Critics have argued that reducing undergraduate tuition fees to £7,500 a year could result in reduced income for humanities and social science departments.
Cutting fees without replacement funding is a concern because it could ‘refocus vice-chancellors minds’ and take away funding from courses such as architecture, according to Simeon Shtebunaev, a PhD student at Birmingham City University.
‘There is a real fear in the university sector about arts and humanities degrees and the impact they can suffer when put to the economic test of a “profitable degree”,’ he said.
‘The loss of fees will target the current estate frenzy in which universities have engaged and – unfortunately, in my view – the cut will be taken from students and not from planned expansions and land acquisitions.
Shtebunaev said the fee reduction was a ‘newsworthy headline and nothing more’ but that the reinstatement of maintenance grants was ‘desperately needed’ by students.
UWE Bristol Architecture Society president Suleiman Al-Sa’di said the changes would mean architectural education would become even more expensive in the long run, ’which again will exclude those the profession needs more to become more inclusive’.
He added: ’It really makes me angry that people in power today, who did benefit from a free HE system which gave them the education they needed to be in the position of power they are in, dictate that fees should be charged to students of the next generations.’
RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: ’Rising fees are burdening architecture students with excessive debt, impacting their wellness and mental health.
’We cautiously welcome the government-commissioned report’s call for a tuition fees cut, but note the extension of the payment period from 30 to 40 years. A much more radical re-thinking of the current funding system should certainly include reinstating support grants for poorer students, and more besides.’