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A future fair for students

PhilHunt2015.jpgPhilip Hunt on the need for proper financial support for those entering higher education


With nearly 80% of students unlikely to pay back their student loans in full, the Conservative’s obdurate refusal to end the system looks more perverse than ever. Although committed to a review, its continued defence of current arrangements does not bode well for students. And the latest report from the National Audit Office (NAO) into the higher education market is a devastating critique of the government’s approach.

The bottom-line of the report is that students taking out huge loans don’t think they are getting value for money from universities. One root cause of this is that most students are not properly equipped to make informed financial decisions that will have a long-lasting impact on their lives. The NAO found that 58% of 15 to 18 year olds have not had any appropriate financial education – something that can help avoid potential mis-steps.

The Department of Education has made some attempt to solve this problem by publishing comparative data for courses on student satisfaction and average graduate incomes. But only one in five prospective students have used this data, with it dropping to just one in 25 for those considering part-time courses. A huge worry, when undergraduate loans in England are the most expensive in the industrialised world.

In any case, the decision about whether or not to go to university begins much earlier than that and the help and support is woefully inadequate. Careers advice in schools has been heavily cut back and alternatives to universities may not always get a fair hearing.

The government frequently uses the language of the market to describe the university sector, and the recently enacted Higher Education and Research Act makes it quicker and simpler to enter the market. But if students can’t make an informed choice on what and where to study – and understand the long-term implications of taking on debt – then the market approach favoured by the Conservatives is doomed to fail.

The issue is most pronounced when it covers students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Just over a quarter of students are from low participation areas as opposed to nearly 60% from those with the highest. Moreover, they tend to go to the lowest ranked universities and end up with the largest level of debts, following the abolition of maintenance grants.

This is hardly consistent with the statement made by Theresa May on becoming Prime Minister that she wanted a country that works for everyone. One of the best ways to achieve that is through social mobility via higher education. But last year saw the steepest fall in applications for 30 years.

Universities are rightly coming under much greater scrutiny. There is huge concern about the high level of fees and poor value for money felt by so many students. I will be pressing Ministers today to acknowledge that the system is broken and ask for a commitment to give current and future students a fairer deal.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 13th December 2017

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