The long-awaited Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, otherwise known as the Augar Review, was released last week outlining numerous recommendations for change to the Higher Education sector.
The headline that you may have seen is the recommendation of reducing tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500. NUSU are supportive of a reduction of fees, particularly as it may encourage those looking at higher education to see less of a financial barrier to their future opportunities.
On the surface, a reduction of fees to £7,500 would be a positive, but we need to be very cautious about what this may mean and the impact it could have on students and on an equal academic experience. There are a number of caveats associated with this reduction which mean it could be negative in the long run. The Government must pledge to fill the funding gap that any fee reduction would create. That being said, there is a risk that the Government may decide to focus this supplementary funding on subject areas which are aligned with the modern Industrial Strategy, namely the courses which cost more to deliver and are often considered to offer better value to students and taxpayers. This could potentially leave arts and humanities subjects underfunded, which NUSU strongly believe are just as valuable to society.
NUSU also supports the proposal to reintroduce the maintenance grant for students. A vital piece of financial support, it should never have been taken away in the first place. Another positive move is the recommendation that the loans system should be rebranded as a ‘Student Contribution System’. This name better reflects the reality of repayment, which should help ease student anxiety over the debt they graduate with and tackles another barrier that discourages many prospective students from going to University.
Two very important changes that we strongly oppose are the extension of the repayment period from 30 to 40 years, and the reduction of the repayment threshold from £25,000 to £23,000. There is a danger this will go under the radar and these proposals would be very detrimental to students. The combination of the two essentially mean that graduates will end up paying back more money for a longer period of their lives, substantially increasing the cost of education for the individual. This isn’t just a negative for all graduates; lower-earning graduates in particular could find themselves repaying their loan until they retire.
With regards to the recommendation on parental contributions, while more explicit guidance for financial contributions from parents to students is useful, we feel that this does not go far enough. It does little to remove the assumption of the Student Loans Company that parents will provide support. It’s not just about notifying parents that they may have to give financial support, as this will still result in maintenance loans that don’t even cover accommodation costs for some students. We would like to see more done to support students whose parents may be on a higher earnings threshold but do not provide that financial support, rather than simply assuming that parents will fill the gap.
In summary, the student finance system has been rife with problems for years. The Augar Review is a fair attempt at bringing about positive change, and we welcome some recommendations. However, there are key proposals which would have very negative impacts on students, notably the payment threshold and repayment period recommendations.
It is important to remember these are only recommendations. The Government can completely disregard all, some or none of them and it is likely that any changes introduced would start in the 2020/21 academic year. NUSU have kept a close interest on this issue, with Jonny our Education Officer recently attending a Westminster panel on the Augar Review, and we will continue to keep you updated. For now, nothing is changing.