White Paper


This White Paper sets out our proposals for a higher education sector which is sustainably funded; delivers a better student experience; and contributes fully to the efforts to increase social mobility. The purpose of this consultation is to receive feedback on this overall package of proposals for reforming higher education in England. We welcome input from anyone with an interest in our proposals.

These proposals represent a radical reform of the higher education system and we are seeking your comments on the overall strategy for reform set out in this White Paper and the impact that they will have on the higher education sector. You can comment via the comment box on the right or by emailing HE.consultation@bis.gsi.gov.uk

Download the White Paper.

You can also comment on the specific proposals in each chapter by clicking on the links below.


  1. Sustainable and fair funding
  2. Well-informed students driving teaching excellence
  3. A better student experience and better-qualified graduates
  4. A diverse and responsive sector
  5. Improved social mobility through fairer access
  6. A new fit-for-purpose regulatory framework

11 944 WP Students at Heart

72 Responses to White Paper

  1. Jayne Richards says:

    What is happening to the funding of current parttime students taking over 50% of a fulltime programme? Will they continue to be funded alongside their fulltime counterparts?

    • BIS says:

      Jayne, thanks for your comment. There are no changes to the system of funding in place for continuing part-time students or for those beginning courses in 2011. Course grants and fee grants will continue to be in place for eligible part-time students who are studying at an intensity of 50% or more of an equivalent full time course.

      • Jayne Richards says:

        Will these grants continue until the end of their studies or be withdrawn after a six year period?

        • BIS says:

          Support will be provided for six years provided the course being undertaken part-time would have taken three years to complete had it been studied on a full-time basis. If the equivalent full-time course lasts four years then part-time students may receive support for up to eight years.

  2. Sarah Fox says:

    I cant print this so it is almost impossible to read! I hope DH doesn’t go this way.

  3. Pingback: The Higher Education White Paper is a good start at introducing real competition between universities for academic places | British Politics and Policy at LSE

  4. Chris says:

    The policy on Higher Education is a shambles driven by ideological conviction rather than any reasonable analysis. Assumptions like competition and the student as a consumer do not sit easily with any notion of education.

    It looks like this disastrous Government only really wants training for work. A strange notion that I though had beeen fatally undermined by the 1960s due to the rapid pace of change. Education is not training for known work placements it is the development of flexible people capable of change. I don’t know what jobs my students will do in the future, in some ways that is the point, but I’m sure that being well educated in the traditional sense they can cope. The indebted trainees the White Paper will lead to are likely to look for a quick buck to pay off their debts, not imagine their way into an unforeseen future.

    • ginevradabenci says:

      I agree. This is a cack-handed effort to put a price-tag on something that cannot be meaningfully priced in that way. Worse still, it does so in a way that is not realistic about market forces. If the government really wants a market economy in higher education they should not be dictating what fees are to be charged, or pretending that all institutions and all programmes of study are ‘created equal’. The government also demonstrates a schizophrenic attitude to admissions, by proposing an arbitrary academic standard of AAB at A level at the top end – this will discriminate against students who attempt the harder A levels – and an arbitrary price of £7,500 at the lower end – this will discriminate in favour of mediocre institutions.

  5. Joseph Lowe says:

    Currently part time students studying for a foundation degree can receive a fee loan even if they already have a degree. Does this exemption remain in the new regime? If it remains then presumably someone with an existing degree studying part time for a foundation degree would now be entitled to a loan?

    • BIS says:

      Currently, students who already hold an equivalent or higher level qualification, compared with the one offered by their current course, do not qualify for any assistance with fees. There is no exemption to this rule for students studying on foundation degrees and there are no plans to change this policy with the introduction of fee loans for part-time study.

  6. BIS says:

    The documents can all be downloaded as PDF’s on the all documents page http://discuss.bis.gov.uk/hereform/all-documents/

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  9. This is a terrible, terrible document from head to toe.

    The “kite-marking” scheme described will encourage degrees with no transferable skills — hugely dangerous anywhere, but particularly in volatile information technology field used as an example. In the United States, “accredited” courses like this contributed to huge youth unemployment after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 as thousands were left with worthless degrees when companies stopped hiring any web developer they could find.

    The whole approach of students as “consumers” with HEFCE — which has absolutely no student input — as a “consumer champion” is both condescending to students and silly. We are not consumers, we are learners; and we are our own champions, as our demonstration on 10 November 2010 and every demonstration since has demonstrated. The proper place for the student voice is with students’ unions, not with the retired vice-chancellors who run HEFCE.

    Increased “competition” in the student loan market is irresponsible. The United States government has spend in excess of $100 billion since 2008 on bailouts to the student loan system. SLC on its own, meanwhile, has proven itself to be woefully incompetent.

    The simple fact is, full public funding for higher education, including maintenance grants instead of loans for students, is the only system which has ever worked. Attempts to marketise and privatise have always led to reductions in access, spiralling costs, market distortions, cartel behaviour and administrative disasters.

    The “radical reform” the UK needs in its education system is a return to full public funding, not this handover of Britain’s most cherished public resources to the private sector.

    And to anyone who says we can’t afford it: The government is of the opinion that we can afford the waste of the war in Libya, that we can afford the waste of over £100 billion lost to tax evasion, avoidance and non-payment annually, that we can afford the waste of £70 billion on a nuclear weapons system Britain will never use. We can afford the comparative pennies of ensuring the British higher education system is great; why not do it?

    Would that be too much like a real “big society”?

  10. David Dowdle says:

    Perhaps the two Cambridge and Oxford educated graduates would be willing to visit ‘lower quality’ universities in some kind of ‘undercover boss’ approach as per the Channel 4 TV programme? They would then see what the HE world is really like without their rose tinted glasses.
    Students who do not attend lectures despite paying their fees, who bring laptops to lectures to ‘twitter’ their pals and checkout their ‘Facebook’ profiles. Students who cannot spell or structure a sentence. Students who fall asleep in lectures due their just coming off an 8 hour shift at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in order to contribute towards their outrageously excessive (privately owned) accomodation costs. Students who use their iPods in lectures continuously whilst at the same time not bothering to bring a pen and writing paper with them. Students who think of every excuse possible as to why they did not hand in their coursework.
    Student’s who expect to be told what they need to know to pass the end assessment rather than research and discover the required knowledge because that’s how they were taught at secondary school. Student’s who do not know why they are at university except that it was a better alternative to being unemployed. Students who are not academically capable but who may well have strong attributes that would have allowed them to undertake vocational studies and apprenticeships (if they existed). Students who have been forgotten by successive governments. Students who fail and resit exams constantly to finally end up dropping out of their programmes of study after one or two years with nothing to show for it. Students who spend hundreds of pounds on textbooks they never read. Students who produce typically 40 pages of text to answer a whole years assessment requirements but write hundred of pages of email and text messages to their pals. Students who will have tens of thousands of debt when they graduate. Students whose parents give up their own social lives, holidays and passtimes in order for them to pay to help their children to ‘survive’ university. Students who take no notice of lecturers who try to help them control and reduce the above identified problems.
    I could go on and on. I am very proud to be a university lecturer. I am passionate about higher education. I try my best to help students become well rounded individuals who can contribute to society and enjoy their working, social and family lives. I pass on the wealth of experience I have from being a practitioner prior to entering academia. I give up my evenings and weekends to support students who often contact me at 10 and 11 pm in an evening (or later) with questions related to their imminent coursework submissions.
    I argue with my wife often over why I cannot spend more time with her and my two daughters. My health is suffering due to the stress of academic life. I spend my so called summer holidays preparing for the next academic year to the point that I will only be away from home for four days this year. I do not get to see my mother and brother and sisters very much. I live under the fear of redundancy despite having worked and paid my taxes since I was 16 and after never to have asked for state benefits in my life. I am now being asked to work longer, contribute more to my pension and receive less when I retire (or nothing when I die early) whilst at the same time seeing immigants (legal and illegal) receive benefits that make them better off than I and my family. I see private education providers circulating like vultures to cherry pick the most profitable areas of HE (as in the NHS) whilst the government is prepared to let what is left to stagnate and die. I hear MP’s and industry leaders talk about something they know nothing about because their parents paid for private schools and Russell group univerities that led to internships and eventual employment in finance, law and management.
    Once again I could go on and on but why bother? I will not be listened to. I will not be asked to offer advice on how UK Higher Education can be returned to the ‘top of the league tables’. I will not be asked to suggest ways in which to make disenfranchised students engage with their studies, with society and with the ‘real’ world in order to contribute to the UK economy. I will not be asked how to get industry on our side and help us introduce students to their life after university. I will not be asked for anything that my 18 years in a senior position in the construction industry and a further 18 years as a senior lecturer in academia can contribute to helping the UK get out of the hole that banking and finance millionaires have dropped us in. Again I feel I could go on and on about the problems in HE but I have to stop. It’s late and I have to get back to my real life. I have masters level research proposals to assess, I have to finish a presentation being delivered tomorrow, I have to repond to the 50+ emails from students I receive every day and of course I have to sleep!!

    • Martin McAreavey says:


      Bravo! You are not alone. There are others who share your views, your passion and your concerns for the future.

      I’m sure you are already with us (UCU) and urge you to share your views widely, loudly and persistently. It is seldom that I come across colleagues as articulate and cogent as you. It is vital that you continue to be vocal and visible.

      All the very best!


    • Henry Rothery says:

      Whilst I recognise that what you say is true, and I can well appreciate how stressful an academic’s job is. However, what about the many students who don’t go to Oxbridge, who don’t fit the description outlined above? I do go to lectures, I do bring a pen and paper, I don’t go on Facebook or Twitter, I don’t bring my iPod, I do do research and a lot of hard work and I don’t go to Oxbridge or a Russel Group university. There are many that don’t, I appreciate that, and that is a major problem that needs to be solved as to eliminate it would improve the experience for everybody. Talking down university students, won’t help the case for the university sector as a whole however.

      • David Dowdle says:

        Henry, the rant above doesn’t actually imply that Oxbridge and Russell group students are the only ones who are motivated, hardworking and self-directed and I fully appreciate that far more students do put their hearts into their studies than those who do not. I was trying to suggest that the government needs to support disenfranchised students, rather than make life even tougher, to avoid students dropping out and potential students being put off by the fees increases. Many of the student ‘types’ described above are bright enough to pass with good or excellent grades. But what I intended to get across was that they are so tired, so disengaged, have great difficulty in asking for help and are so much in debt that technolgy, social networks and clubbing are their main release from those stresses . The government should return to full funding, i.e. no fees, and do all they can to encourage students to attend and succeed in their studies. For those who say ‘why should the taxpayer stump up these costs?’ just ask yourself what kind of life would you live with less doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, opticians, innovators, ICT systems developers, scientists, etc., etc. Life would be very hard without the ‘specialists’ universities and colleges produce.

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  12. Rupert Dannreuther says:

    Why is it not downloadable?

  13. I think it’s a great idea, and, similar suggestions should be disseminated within the EU countries, to promote a better standard of living for everyone.

  14. AJ says:

    This clearing puts upper middle class independant school students at the heart of Higher Education and ensures that state school students who generally get lower A level grades go to local providers limiting their choice and the career opportunities open to them.

    It also confuses quality with popular opinion – you only have to look at the large number of fast food retail outlet in every highstreet to realise that popularity does not equate to quality.

    I could go on as this document seems aimed to destabilise a sector which is currently one of the best in the world at what it does in the name of cost savings which are at best unproven and may never be realised. At the same time the fastest growing economies are investing in HE at an unprecedented level – this does not bode well for the long time wellbeing of our economy.

  15. David Brown says:

    I think the Government needs to be more open about the ‘need’ for these changes. They are introducing a new burden on students, while not reducing the tax revenue that used to contribute. This suggests it is more an effort to balance the economy in the face of an avoidable debt crisis.

    If the reality of our situation is that we either raise taxes or make more direct contributions, then perhaps that reality needs to be made more obvious, so that we can address the problem as a whole society and not just as one driven by Government – for all its having good intentions. Otherwise we risk a confused and potentially unhelpful response from the public.

    However, perhaps education is not an area that should be addressed in this way. Fundemental elements of what supports a society, namely food production; education and energy production, should be supported by the whole of society and to the maximum limit affordable. Burdening students will only act as a dampener on knowledge dissemination and later on knowledge creation. Disrupting fundementals like education risks our medium and longterm ability to thrive.

    Also, the chaotic rather discontinuous way in which these changes are being made is creating huge risk for all those involved in the first years of this experiment.

  16. I am just concern how this will affect education in “third world” nations which copied the current British model and has being doing so for years.

  17. Norman Gilkinson says:

    These changes are due to the fee crisis introduced by this government. By adapting a FAILING American model to rectify the situation is both stupid and proposterous. Yet again as far as common sense goes the decision makers are found wanting.

  18. The main themes of the paper appear to set grounding for improvements whilst retaining the facets of quality. It is particularly encouraging to see an emphasis on teaching and promotion of this, as too many staff take routes to avoid teaching in favour of obscure and non collaborative ‘research’ activities for their self interests only.
    It would be an improvement to monitor nepotism, private networking and bias in the appointment and promotion of staff by ‘management’ – There should also be visibility of the expenses claimed by ‘management’ and assessments of the viability for attendance at conferences etc., particularly abroad (i.e. the present system is vulnerable to corruption, favouratism and the abuse of student funds) – perhaps students should also assess how their fees are being spent on such travel and accommodation of staff – There should also be some generic assessment of the quality (e.g. league table scores) of the publications in which staff publish as there are wide variations in the quality and relevance of many publications made by staff with the sole purpose of self-interest and in order to enhance their CVs with dubious inputs

  19. Lorraine says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above (Chris, ES) I also believe wholeheartedly in providing the opportunity for anyone who wishes to enter higher education irrespective of circumstance as a beneficiary of that very ethos myself. However, as a parent with children approaching progression to higher education I despair of the policy. Irrespective of fees I am not prepared to sell my children short by “bargain hunting” their future. A position which is congruent, I suspect, with most of the ministers who have thrown this idiocy together.

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  21. Gerard Conroy says:

    Students who take out large loans are disadvantaged in that they cannot enter the housing market. Their credit status is deternimed currently by what debts they have irrespective of whether this is incurred for education or any other purpose.

    • BIS says:

      Thanks for your comment. The Council for Mortgage Lenders have advised that a student loan is very unlikely to materially impact on an individual’s ability to get a mortgage, although the reduction in net income as a result of loan repayment results in a commensurate reduction in the amount a mortgage lender is willing to lend.

      • Jayne Richards says:

        You are missing the point: it is not a case of having an impact on an individual’s credit rating but on their ability to pay. With a hefty student debt to consider how will students save for a deposit or afford repayments? Similarly, what about those potential mature students who want to re-skill but who have mortgages and famililies to consider? Many will simply not be able to afford to borrow more to study – particularly if they are helping their own children to survive university. What happened to promoting life-long learning?

        • BIS says:

          For new borrowers commencing their studies from 2012/13, the repayment threshold will be a salary level of £21,000. Setting the contribution at £21,000 is a core part of making the system more progressive. It will mean that low earning graduates are not required to make payments and those that earn above £21,000 will contribute less each month than borrowers would under the current system.

          • Jayne Richards says:

            Your response did not address the points I made. I repeat: with a hefty student debt to consider how will students save for a deposit for a mortgage or afford repayments? Similarly, what about those potential mature students who want to re-skill but who have mortgages and famililies to consider? Many will simply not be able to afford to borrow more to study – particularly if they are helping their own children to survive university. What happened to promoting life-long learning?

          • BIS says:

            The amount a mortgage lender is willing to lend is usually linked to a borrower’s net income. This means that increasing the repayment threshold on loans, as we plan to do (from £15,000 to £21,000), will mean that graduates actually pay back less each month and will have more net income available to them with which to apply for and repay a mortgage.

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  23. Claire Horton says:

    Should students be permitted to repay loans early, without penalty? I think they should. But whatever the decision, it needs to be made quickly so that parents and students know what they are signing up to.

  24. AR says:

    In regard to 5.14 of the report.

    I think that the blatent disregard for vocational qualification is ridiculous. Not every student learns in the same way, in my own experience, A levels where non-practical and irrelevant. I went on to do fantastically well at University and had I been informed ab0ut other qualications I may have suceeded.

    You need to understand the importance of work based qualifications and except the fact that intelligence and brilliance does not show itself in regimented, formal qualifications. You have mentioned that you want to focus on University being related to industry but have not focused on the importance of KS3 education being more enterprise focused to provide students with essential work based skills.

    I think the importance of vocational education needs to be re-explored.

  25. What does ‘equivalent’ mean in reference to the AAB + students? Are other qualifications other than A-Levels allowed?

  26. joel lazarus says:

    Bravo to this government!
    This strategy will at last ensure that proper universities will be the domain solely of the upper classes.
    Poor kids will rightly be either excluded from higher education or be given an expensive, sub-standard ‘training’ course.
    Good god, we can’t have the lower classes being taught to think independently and critically! And this strategy ensures that such a nightmarish scenario will never occur!
    Well done, Messrs Willets and Cable!

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  34. Kathleen Tattersall says:

    A hotch potch of ill-thought-out contradictions and a disaster for the future of the country. Invest in young people – they are the future.

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  36. Hannah Bastow says:

    I find the comments on postgraduate education extremely worrying. Correct me if I am wrong, but did I just read that participation in postgraduate courses will be monitored, I assume just to see how many people are able to fund 9000+ Masters fees plus living costs outright. Government funding for postgrad will be reduced from 2012 (even though there is little funding and massive competition already). This doesn’t strike me as sustainable unless the point is to narrow postgraduate applicants down to those who are wealthy.

    I also agree with previous comments, this paper presents prospective HE students purely as consumers, which is deeply disturbing to anyone who recognises the true value of higher education – funnily enough I don’t mean money!

  37. I just want to add how much I approve of this debate, we did something v. similar recently with http://www.pearsonblueskies.com

    Can we find out who’s answering on the BIS side though please? e.g. role / team / function etc.?

    Also a bit of background around the process would be great? e.g. are comments being fed upwards, going through the press team etc?

    • BIS says:

      Hi Louis,

      Thanks for your comment. All the comments we receive, on this website or via email, are read by officials within BIS higher education directorate and, where appropriate, policy leads are asked to respond to specific questions. Once the consultation closes we will analyse the responses and provide advice to ministers. This, and responses to the consultation on the regulatory framework which we will be running over the summer, will then inform a higher education bill which we intend to introduce as soon as parliamentary time allows

  38. Anonymous says:

    This programme is reminiscent of how UK manufacturing industry was dealt with not long ago. The result is evident…
    Treating education like a market place is extremely worrying. Even though the true income for the universities does not change but prospective students and their parents will be under the impression that the price has risen by three fold therefore I am the expectations will rise to an un “Sustainable Levels”. This will leave both academics, students and their families unhappy and stressed. It may be a trigger for mass exodus of both academics and students to seek better standards overseas. Just see how the engineering capabilities (practical and educational) of this country has suffered since the 80s.
    I am not convinced that this so-called “strategy for reform” is anything more than hollow slogans with an agenda to undermine a large number of Universities in the UK. Especially the ones that do not fall into the very few chosen! Our investments in research are dwarfed by many rich and prosperous EU countries. What makes our research second best in the world is the critical mass, the research conducted by more than 60 HE institutions in the UK. The new approach will put 50 of those institutions under immense duress and in long run destroy our reputation in the world. We will loose one of the most important sources of income in our HE education, “The Overseas Students and Research Associates” who subsidise our teaching and research capabilities.
    Finally, on industrial support – this is only possible if proper cultural shift in industry attitude towards education (i.e. sponsorship of students, research and development and joint ventures) is addressed the way companies and NGOs collaborate with HE in countries like USA, Germany … The current document does not mention any of this…

  39. Bernard Williams says:

    Putting students at the heart of the system.
    I have 3 granchildren between two daughters.
    All 3 granchildren have either been to university,or are currently attending,
    studying 3 totally different degree courses.
    All 3 grandchildren and their respective parents,have frequently stated their concerns at the length of vacations.
    They are of the opinion that the courses could be easily condensed in to 2 years courses, instead of 3 years.
    Such a policy would have a benefit to the
    universities themselves, ( shorter period of time allows more students to attend university-more income ) Benfits to the country- more qualified future generations, loan repayment commences 1 year earlier.
    Of considerable benefit to the students-lower debt levels to be repaid.
    This subject has come up frequently in my family
    Thank you for your time.
    Bernard Williams

  40. peter says:

    Generally, it seems OK. It doesn’t really change much though, and it doesn’t address the to core issues I feel passionately about.
    First, the quality of teaching aids: text books, computer programs, video lectures etc. is frankly pathetic. The market has failed in this sector because there is very little money in it. I am convinced that a relatively tiny investment in the development of very high quality, well tested teaching aids (particularly for mathematics) would have dramatic results. Many people prefer this method of learning.
    Next, the degree, the fundamental unit of further education, is an archaic hangover from the middle ages. If you are serious about life-long learning, then you must modularise the degree (as the OU has done), and integrate it with all other qualifications. I see no reason why a simple points system would not work. Easy for students and employers to understand (no A/S GCSHND Level Diplomas; just points), and infinitely flexible. You must be able to attain a useful qualification in not more than three months. Very few older people are able to spare three contiguous years from their lives. These changes have to happen sooner or later, if we are going to compete in a knowledge based economy with the likes of China and India.

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  46. The Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals ( CIPP) welcome’s and understands the broad approach to the proposals to the HE sector. However there is no regard for the contribution which has been made in recent years by the Employer Engagement Project.
    This Project had contributed to employer involvement and widening participation . In our own case we have recruited an average 800 students per year onto the Foundation Degree in Payroll Management.As it is a high cost distance learning programme employers have made a major contribution in terms of fees and even more in- kind. Under the new proposals there is a real danger that recruitment will significantly decline . The Governments’s concept of strategically important and vunerable subjects provides a mechanism to support the programme in future.To achieve this the Government needs to indicate to HEFCE that this is the type of provision which should be supported under the Strategically Important Poilcy Guidelines.

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  48. Lawrence Lockhart says:


    Let me first declare my position. I am a graduate, having had six years of free university education. I spent most of my career as a sixth form teacher and careers adviser. However, in mid-career I worked briefly in educational research, and for a decade in African countries as an educational economist. Since retirement I have worked as an unpaid informal sixth form careers adviser, in a typical year engaging with hundreds of post-16 students in fifty or more independent, grammar and comprehensive schools and colleges in the west country. My children have graduated. I am outside the university system and party politics. I have no axe to grind. My concerns are for young people and the financial burdens we are imposing on them during their working lives, particularly those who by choice or necessity will enter lower-paid occupations. I have profound misgivings, both philosophical and practical, concerning the recent trend towards the marketisation of higher education. I deeply regret the progressive commodification of higher education, and over several years I have sought to express my opposition, and to influence opinion. I do recognise that those who benefit most from higher education must inevitably contribute substantially to its costs, but not through the tuition fees and long-term debt levels that they will incur if the present proposals in the White Paper are implemented.

    My objection to the marketisation of higher education is mainly on equity grounds. Markets allow the better-off to buy the best of what is on offer, which in education means access to sought-after schools, universities and employment opportunities. We all want the best for our children, and national and international experience indicates that the privileged will manipulate the education system to their and their children’s advantage. Inequality of opportunity begins in the womb, and is reinforced by differentiated access to pre-school, schools, universities, internships and employment opportunities. Fee remissions, bursaries and other inducements for those from disadvantaged backgrounds could never be offered on a scale sufficient to compensate for and correct this endemic inequity. I maintain that the marketisation of higher education is, both in principle and in practice, inconsistent with the Government’s avowed intention to promote social mobility.

    This seems to be confirmed by what I see happening in schools and colleges that I visit. So far as independent, grammar and the more sought-after comprehensive schools are concerned, their candidates were relatively successful in obtaining university places this year, and their school advisers expect no more than a modest fall in applications to university in future years. In contrast, candidates from less sought-after comprehensive schools and colleges of further education have lost proportionally more from the shortage of university places relative to numbers of applicants, and advisers tell us of a marked fall in interest in going to university among 2012 leavers. However, these are only impressions, and intentions may change.

    I understand the logic of the Government’s assertion that the tuition fees and repayment regime amount almost to a graduate tax, so that graduates who become high earners will pay more proportionately than low earners, some of whom may repay nothing. However, though it may be similar to a progressive tax taking one year at a time, high earners will repay relatively quickly, but low earners will be making payments for much longer. Also, among families who are debt averse, perception may in this case be more powerful than logic. Add to this the prospect that future governments may renege on the guarantees of the present government. On a particular issue, the salary level of £21,000, below which no fee repayments are required, seems generous, but if this is not updated annually to take account of inflation, its real value will be seriously eroded over time. At present inflation levels it will be worth less than £17,000 by April 2016 when the first graduates of the new regime begin to pay off their student debts.

    Consider the ‘consumers’ in this higher education market: mostly 16/17-year-olds when they begin to make their choices. We are asking them, faced by a mountain of complex and unreliable information, to make higher education decisions by calculating what they will earn and how much debt they will incur. In reality, at this stage of their lives only a small minority know what careers they will follow, what university courses to choose, and will stick with it and will succeed in their chosen career paths. The majority want a degree because conventional wisdom states that they need one to get a decent job. If they do have a career in mind at age 16/17 they are likely to change their intentions later, maybe several times. And so they should; young people ought to be allowed to come to their career decisions through experience and trial-and-error over several years. For many, if not most, there will be a decade or so between completing a UCAS application form and finding a long-term job. Many will not know what their fees have bought until many years later. The ‘graduate premium’ that they are told they are likely to earn is derived from historical data, and is inevitably falling. Unless I am mistaken, it is an arithmetic mean, which is pulled upwards by the high earnings of the few, so the majority of graduates are likely to earn substantially below the so-called average graduate premium.

    The Government promises that universities will be required to provide more and better information on the career and earnings prospects associated with different degree courses. However, can we reasonably expect universities faced by competitive pressures to be entirely evenhanded in presenting this information to those they are seeking to recruit? More important, can this information be relied upon? Some years ago I was involved in a research project which aimed to evaluate the outcomes of manpower needs forecasting and educational planning. The case studies were mostly national plans purporting to forecast skilled manpower requirements usually for ten to twenty years ahead, and to implement education and training programmes to meet these requirements. In the opinion of the distinguished academic who led this research, all the manpower plans which were systematically analysed turned out to be hardly worth the paper they were written on, and he made this judgment on his own plan for the government of Zambia. The reasons were predictable: that in the decade or so between forecasting, implementation and outcomes, manpower requirements had changed because of technological developments, international labour migration, recruitment through other routes, changes in government programmes, and/or a number of other unpredictable factors. The forecasts of the growth of GDP and of its components, on which manpower forecasting had been based, turned out to be over-optimistic and very different from outcomes. In the 1970s a Labour Government launched a national manpower plan, but this was also based on unrealistic expectations of economic growth and was abandoned in the turmoil of the mid-1970s. We have had examples more recently of predictions of requirements for particular graduate occupations which proved over-optimistic. There has been a three year period during which most newly-qualified Physiotherapists have had no jobs to go to.

    The Government asserts that competition in a higher education market will force universities to become more efficient. There is probably some truth in this. However, my impression is that universities are judged more by their reputations and their research programmes than by the quality of their undergraduate teaching. In economics we use such terms as ‘reputation monopolies’ for such market situations. I suspect that pressure on universities from their students to be more efficient may be more along the line: “I am paying these fees, so give me my 2:1”

    Where are we at now? The Coalition Government broadly accepted the recommendations of the Browne Report for the marketisation of higher education, but was not prepared completely to remove the cap on tuition fees. It has subsequently introduced a succession of well-intended provisions and changes, aimed to make the system more equitable and to ensure that universities would be adequately funded. Each of these has threatened to set off a succession of unintended consequences, which in turn have required further changes. The situation seems to be heading for chaos and even ridicule. Despite the stated intention to promote social mobility through greater access for young people from disadvantaged, non-traditional backgrounds, most commentators suggest that the opposite is happening. Through the progressive removal of controls over numbers of places to be made available to AAB+ applicants, it is predicted that it will be students from advantaged backgrounds and a small number of prestigious universities that will gain, while universities serving wider communities of learners will be the losers.

    Is this the Government’s hidden agenda? I have taken part overseas in a number of government-initiated enquiries into the workings of education systems, and I have studied others. There seems to be a pattern. They are conducted by representatives of “the great and the good” with notional representation of broader sections of society. They produce reports and recommendations subsequently implemented by governments that seem designed to protect the interests of “people like them” (and their children), with a few goodies for the rest. Reluctantly I am beginning to suspect that the Browne report and subsequent government decisions may be fitting this pattern.

    There is a wider inter-generational context. Young people in the UK face a quadruple whammy. For the short and medium term they face youth unemployment at rates far above the national average, and the longer they are out of work the more difficult it will be for them to get back into the active labour market. They are being told that they must work longer and save more for retirement, because the advantageous pension arrangements enjoyed by their parents’ generation can no longer be afforded. They find it increasingly difficult to raise the finance for home ownership, and the cost of renting accommodation is rising faster than incomes. Those in paid work will be heavily taxed to pay off public and private sector debts created by others. On top of all this, those fortunate enough to go to university will be repaying student debts at the time when they are trying to establish normal family life. I do not subscribe to accusations that the baby boomer generation is knowingly robbing its children of their inheritance, but there is gross injustice between the generations.

    What can be done at this late stage? It is a truism that university education benefits individuals; it also benefits industry and commerce by providing skilled workers who help to earn profits, and it benefits society as a whole. It is therefore accepted that all these groups should contribute to the resource costs of higher education. This has to be the starting point. It is not too late to go back over all the issues again. The government deficit is no reason to suggest that we must stick with what we have. The first repayments of tuition fees cannot be made before April 2016, and for at least the medium term the state will be paying the great bulk of the universities’ expenses through its loans to students.

    I suggest that we should revisit the more progressive graduate tax alternative, whereby those who earn little pay less, and those on high earnings pay proportionately more. It is a more flexible instrument. It was said that, for the Browne enquiry, the ‘killer blow’ for the graduate tax was the problem of how to get repayments from EU citizens graduating from UK universities. However, this argument applies just as forcefully to the repayment of tuition fees, and can only be resolved by agreements among EU governments.

    Overall the UK tax system is hardly progressive, and there is much tax avoidance and evasion among the better-off. There are those of us who would be prepared to trade in some GDP growth in return for less inequality of income and wealth and a society more at ease with itself.

    Lawrence Lockhart
    38 Fairfield Avenue, Bath BA1 6NH
    Telephone: 01225-316593
    Email: l.lockhart@virgin.net

  49. Pingback: UK Universities moving into unpredictable waters… « Slugger O'Toole

  50. deb nicholson says:

    Better idea would be to have lifelong repayments. This would not take money away from graduates wishing to: have children,buy property,start pension savings. Repayments commencing when graduate chooses, through add on to income tax or one off payment from windfall/property downsize. If not paid off by death (unless dependent children) final payment taken from estate. Call it a graduate tax and include all current living graduates for a fairer system. The older generations who have enjoyed free HE/FE paying for their children/grandchildren’s education.

  51. Adam Wyatt says:

    Early repayment charges are ridiculous idea. Interest is supposed to be equal to inflation, such that the amount owed is always equal to the amount borrowed (in real terms). Thus punishing someone who is able to repay early goes against this ethos.

    If the government are not making money of the interest charges (which should be to cover inflation and administrative costs only), then surely it is better to encourage early repayment. That way, the government has a guaranteed return on the investment.

    Any arguments about equality should be addressed in delivery the loan, not the repayments. For example, preventing loans going to wealthy families who can use the low interest rate to make a profit through investments, and ensuring bursaries to poorer families.

  52. AMOSSHE is delighted to contribute to discussion about the White Paper. We welcome the conscious effort to put ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ and put students ‘more than ever … in the driving seat.’ In particular we encourage the focus on clear information advice and guidance, and are pleased to see the introduction of more equitable treatment of all learner groups, especially part time learners, in terms of funding. However, we are conscious that the White Paper’s overt focus on student numbers and finance may detract from and confuse some of the issues around widening participation and student focused policy making and delivery.

    The student experience is the second of three challenges identified in the White Paper. It is right to address this as a matter of key importance. AMOSSHE is the membership organisation for professionals delivering student experience support, and as such we welcome the White Paper’s explicit recognition of Student Services and welfare provision as key HEI services. ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ acknowledges HEIs’ duty of care, and that good pastoral care can sometimes ‘make the difference between completing a course and dropping out.’ We echo the department’s calls for welfare to be made a priority together with partnership working with students unions. The tools developed by AMOSSHE in the Value and Impact Project can support HEIs in assessing the value and impact of such services to ensure that they deliver support that makes a difference to the student experience

    AMOSSHE is the UK Student Services Organisation. It informs and supports the leaders of student services, and represents, advocates for, and promotes the student experience. 149 UK HEIs are AMOSSHE members, together with several international organisations. Some 500 named individuals are part of AMOSSHE memberships.

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