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Politics Home: Government 'arrogance' is hampering students progression into Higher Education

The Government is 'addicted to models now dangerously outdated', Gordon writes for Politics Home, in his role as Labour Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills.Headshot.jpg

The context for this year's A level results - for all the achievements of tens of thousands of young people with achievements that bring them and their families pride and joy - makes progression into Higher Education (for them and universities and FE Colleges hoping to receive them) look more problematic than ever.

Some of this might be attributed to specific concerns post-Brexit - the fall in EU applicants & general fears of universities about a hard-Brexit making matters still worse - hence universities now warning Ministers to allow EU staff to remain in place and not have to reapply for settled status, as well as worries about post 2020 research funding.

There are also concerns for post 92 universities that have benefitted from EU structural funding to the communities in which they operate, in terms of jobs and contracts, where Government has yet to spell out how or if they will replace such funding post-Brexit.

But the evidence is mounting that much of this weakness is the cumulative effect of Tory ministers' actions since the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 - now becoming both socially and economically destructive. Two recent reports, from OFFA and the Social Market Foundation, point to growing dropout rates, especially of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly at the end of their first year. The most recent Sutton Trust survey shows the poorest stats on school students planning for HE in 8 years, with two thirds citing money worries, yet Universities Minister Jo Johnson remains in denial.

The July 20 report commissioned from London Economics by UCU, suggests thousands of graduates will suffer a midlife tax crisis through repayments of accrued interest on student loans, which now with a nine fold increase in inflation from 0.3% in April 2016 will get radically worse. Under this Government's current formula, interest on those loans rises to 6.1% this autumn, and who knows where thereafter? None of this exactly hangs out a welcome sign to this year's A level students.

To compound this, measures put in place by David Willetts in 2012, to allay fears about the impact of trebling tuition fees, have been systematically stripped away. A triple whammy - freezing the student tuition loan repayment threshold, scrapping maintenance grants and bursaries for loans- was described by the IfS last month as 'increasing the burden of student loans the most for low and middle earners'.

Throw in the disastrous fall in numbers of part time and mature students- on which the Government so far only offers derisory initiatives too little too late - and you get a sense of how the nudge factor so beloved of Tory theorists is now working to push would be students away from HE, not towards it.

Competition from so called 'earn as you learn' degree apprenticeships and the potential for higher level skills apprenticeships with top employers to remove the debt factor for those fortunate to get them, adds further to the challenges for traditional HE entries.

Instead of looking rapidly at reversing the changes on grants, the threshold and NHS bursaries, as we have been urging, the Government have just ploughed on regardless. Wedded to an outdated market driven Thatcherism stuck in the late 20th century, not understanding the changes of the 21st Century and our international competitors, Jo Johnson has shown both arrogance and complacency in failing to adjust.

He pins his hopes on an explosion of new private providers, while all around him the threats to our existing world class HE institutions are piling up. It will be they and the local economies (as well as the UK economy) to which they contribute, plus would be UK students and graduates who will suffer if there is no change from this Government's addiction to models now dangerously out of date.

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