Cambridge students react to the possibility of tuition fee cuts and caps on student numbers

The government is also discussing the possibility of different fees for different courses, and minimum qualifications for enrolment

In a soon-to-be-published consultation, the government is considering an overhaul of university funding. Their options include considering tuition fee cuts, different fees for different courses, a cap on student numbers for certain courses, and minimum qualifications for enrolment.

Some specific proposals are that maximum tuition fees should be altered to £7,500 a year, different fees should be set for courses such as nursing, sciences and maths to encourage uptake in those subjects, students should have to pass GCSE English and Maths to study anything at degree level, or fees should be frozen at their current level, allowing inflation to erode their current value.

One student described the lowering of tuition fees as a “pleasing proposal”, with another appreciating how the government are “finally acknowledging that university is so expensive for students.” However, multiple concerns were raised about the proposals too, such as a worry that charging different amounts for different courses could create a “comparative valuation system where some courses are seen as more worth it than others.”

A recent article from The Guardian describes that this consultation is intended as a response to the 2019 Augar review of post-18 education and funding, in which one of the proposals was that maximum fees should be altered to £7,500 a year. 

The review includes what one sector leader called “a menu of unpalatable options” for re-addressing funding, which have been debated over the past few months. The options include reducing tuition fees to £7,500, and differential fees for certain courses such as nursing, sciences and maths to encourage the uptake. 

Other ideas consist of introducing caps in course intakes to reduce the number of students on certain courses, and introducing minimum qualifications, such as a pass of GCSE English and Maths. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said he finds it “hard to understand” why students unable to get a GCSE pass should be able to study at degree level at the age of 18.

A final idea is to freeze fees at their current levels and let inflation erode their current value. This has been in place since 2016, as the fees have not been raised from £9,250 since then, meaning their real value has declined by 12%.

The Guardian article explains that whilst No 10 and the Department for Education appear to prefer minimum entry requirements and course caps, the Treasury would prefer to lower its exposure to student loans by directly cutting fees and increasing repayments.

What do Cambridge students think?

As far as the proposals, the Cambridge students that we spoke to definitely preferred certain options over others. One Selwyn student emphasized that reducing the fees to £7,500 was a “pleasing proposal” in that it enables the university to be more “accessible.” However, they also pointed out that the reduced funding should not come at the expense of University “funding shortages.”

Another student echoed these positive feelings about reducing fees, as it shows that the government are “finally acknowledging that university is so expensive for students, especially after the past year, when people are complaining about not getting their money’s worth” amidst pandemic-related restrictions on their use of university facilities and services.

They also pointed out that the current £9250 cost was “only ever” intended to be the “maximum” figure on a “sliding scale”, with the original idea being that universities “could decide how much they would charge” on that scale. However, as the student notes, many universities “basically just charged the maximum” £9250, which the student believes to be “extortionate”, therefore making them pleased that there are plans to reduce these fees.

(Image credits: Sophie Carlin)

When it comes to to student caps and differential fees, the students we spoke to were against the motion. One described that it might create a “comparative valuation system where some courses are seen as more worth it than others.” In particular, they pointed out that if differential fees come into place, it would exacerbate the inequalities that already exist in some courses such as Theology and History of Art where there are many more private school students than state school students. They ask: if these courses are more expensive, how are they going to have equal access?

Another student talked more about the idea to cap the number of students permitted to enrol on a certain course, saying they thought it was “quite a radical move”, as “lots of university places are competitive enough as it is”, and “don’t really need another limit” on them to “make [them] more competitive.”

They also believed that capping numbers would contribute towards “discouraging people from going to university at all”, which they didn’t think was a “good thing”, as they believe there are many positive, valuable experiences to gain from going to university.

However, they also considered how caps on numbers could potentially be positive, explaining that it “could possibly mean that students who actually really want to take that subject, rather than students who just want the university experience, are getting the places.”

With regards to the idea of a minimum qualification to enrol on a university course, such as a pass in GCSE English or Maths, a student commented that it might end up “gatekeeping institutions.” They describe that there are a “number of reasons” why someone might not pass both qualifications, such as a lack of resources and funding, learning disabilities and that English might not be the primary language in the home: “Can’t they be a genius at Maths and not English?”

With regard to freezing fees, the student agrees that they shouldn’t increase with inflation as people’s incomes are not increasing. They emphasize, that though many of these options are undesirable, there needs to be a firm apprenticeship route open alongside them, to remove the idea that “we don’t value people with a university degree above others.”

What else do we know about the report?

The Augar review also suggests that disadvantaged students would benefit from re-introducing maintenance grants from low-income households and that apprenticeships should be more widely available and better funded by the government.

It further proposes that the repayment of student loans should fall under the ‘Student Contribution System’, whereby a higher proportion of students fully repay their loans over a longer time period (currently student loans are wiped at 30 years). 

At the moment, only 12% of graduates are expected to repay their loans in full, and 33% are expected not to repay any money at all at the end of the 30 years. Currently, students with a Plan 2 student loan (which includes English, Welsh and EU students that took out a loan on or after 1st September 2020) only need to begin repaying that loan when they have an income of £27,295 a year or more.

However, some research published by Hepi found that lowering this repayment threshold to an annual income of £19,300 would increase the proportion of students that fully repay their loans to 24%, and nearly halve the numbers who make no repayments. Decreasing the threshold would also mean that the average graduate would pay £10,000 more than they currently do.

These new proposals for overhauling university funding follow a petition urging the government to reduce university tuition fees to £3000 amongst the government restrictions from January to April, which gained 581,286 signatures.

Feature image credit: Matilda Head