There has been much controversy over the decision to treble tuition fees in England, with protests both in and outside parliament. Yet there is broad agreement among the main political parties that more of the burden of funding for higher education should be borne by students. The Government has now set out its vision for the future of the sector, in the shape of the White Paper on higher education in England, although it appears to have shelved plans for a higher education bill.
Future Universities examines the White Paper, putting it in historical perspective and assessing whether it will succeed in achieving its stated aims. It identifies a significant problem at the core of government policy: the fact that the generous terms of the new student loans settlement will create a large amount of unpaid debt for future generations. It argues that whilst it is correct to shift more of the costs of higher education onto students, the stringent student cap needed to control the costs of future unpaid debt is itself the enemy of both improvements in quality and social mobility.
The paper concludes that, although it is a tough political choice, the repayment terms of student loans should be made less generous. This way the state could afford to loosen restrictions on student numbers, introducing more competition into the sector. These changes would in turn drive down tuition fees whilst also aiding social mobility by allowing more people to enter higher education. The end result would be progress towards a higher education sector genuinely sustainable in two senses: fiscally sustainable through realistic assumptions about debt repayment and socially sustainable as it will be able to expand to meet increased demand.