Lord Browne’s report on university funding is to be published on Tuesday. It’s expected to come up with a list of proposals that fit in with the theme of the government’s other budget adjustments: cuts and austerity.
In short, the universities need more money. There is nothing to spare in the Education Department’s budget, so, one way or another, the student will have to pay more.
Some kind of Graduate Tax now seems to have been ruled out. This was the Liberal Democrats’ preferred option. David Cameron has spoken out against the Graduate Tax, saying that it would be unfair and wouldn’t actually raise any money until 2040. Lib Dem Vince Cable, business secretary, appears now to agree.
So, we are probably left with higher tuition fees. There are already expectations that the report will recommend allowing fees to rise from the current £3,290 per year to £7,000 or more. Adding on the cost of living, many students will be leaving university £40,000 in debt. There will be changes to the threshold at which loans are to be repaid and big increases in interest rates. Student loans will become proper, market-driven financial loans, with the interest rates that are typical for personal loans.
There are problems here. Accusations are flying that the Lib Dems are abandoning their core election promises, since they made their opposition to higher fees a flagship election issue.
At the general election, every Lib Dem MP, including party leader Nick Clegg, signed a personal pledge that they would vote against any increase in tuition fees.
The party are pre-empting Lord Browne’s report by highlighting “progressive” measures within it, for example that repayments on student loans will be more expensive for graduates in higher-paid jobs.
But the National Union of Students (NUS) says it is an “insult to the intelligence” to try to “re-brand” an increase in fees as “progressive”.
Tuition fees appears to divide the two coalition parties so sharply, it could be the first issue to create a serious rift between them. Many Lib Dem MPs are already openly opposing the moves and threatening to vote against any legislation. Some have even spoken about the government falling. Like or hate the current government, political instability and another general election are probably the last things we need.
Some calm words of advice
If you are going to have to make the decision about your post-school future soon, whether or not to apply for university, in these straitened times, what should you do? Do you need an alternative to university? Are there alternatives?
Take comfort in the fact that the A-Level is still a gold standard in the world of education. A-Level maths is held in particularly good esteem, especially with a good grade.
Here are some ideas to consider:
Get advice. Speak to your careers adviser, your parents, your friends. Don’t feel you have to take anybody else’s advice, but at the same time listen carefully. They may well have some valuable insight.
Work your way through uni. There are plenty of evening and weekend jobs available for students. Make yourself the guy selling the pints, not the one drinking them. There are downsides of course: any job is a serious commitment; the hours spent at work instead of studying could damage your exam results. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Wind down the hours as exam season approaches.
Don’t go to uni, get a job. For example, the banks are still recruiting, despite their problems. The entry level may not be as high as for those with degrees, but in time you can work your way up the ladder. You’ll be earning money, not accruing debt. Temping agencies are often a good place to start, especially for office work. Prove yourself a good worker and any company will be tempted to take you on full-time – it’s cheaper for them.
Take a year out. Travel or get work for a year, while you think about what to do next. There doesn’t have to be an instant transition from school to university.
Study abroad. There are plenty of good universities in Europe, although the fees will probably work out as much as in the UK. You get to see some of the world at the same time as getting a degree. It’s worth thinking about.
Whatever you choose to do after your A-Levels, don’t take this decision lightly. Remember that an education from a good British university can and will be life-changing for you. If you can afford it.