Tortoise Festival of ThinkIns – Should university be free?

Friday 28 June 2019

Duration: 2:45PM - 3:45PM

16-19 Eastcastle Street, London, W1W 8DY

Status: Completed

Should university be free? We keep tinkering with the way we pay for a university education in England: fees go up and (maybe) down; maintenance grants come in and out. Perhaps all the fiddling around the edges is spectacularly missing the point. In an age when we want ever more people to go to university – maybe more than once in their lifetime – and when a population educated to degree level is essential for a successful economy, is it time to do the obvious thing and make England’s universities free again?

Our special guests for this ThinkIn included:

Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington since 2010, former Universities Minister.

Bobby Seagull, academic, television personality and maths teacher.

Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students.

Claudia Winkleman, television presenter, film critic, radio personality, and journalist.

The Readout 

For universities, is the “world of free” (Jo Johnson’s phrase) a planet we should shoot for, or a bad destination? 

If concern about student debt was rocket fuel, we’d be there already. There’s an interesting ‘what if?’ question – if maintenance grants hadn’t been scrapped; if the top interest rate on UK student loans hadn’t gone as high as 6%? – would public support for them be stronger? But even without those slip-ups, in the US as well as the UK, left-of-centre politics is setting a course for the world of free. 

There’s an old belief that you can have tuition fees and no cap on student numbers; or no tuition fees and a cap. But no fees and no cap always ends in funding cuts. That still seems overwhelmingly likely to be true. All the other vital calls on education funding (from early years to Further Education colleges) will make it so.

There’s something to celebrate in having properly funded universities in England. It’s an historic rarity, and we’ve got it now. There’s a lot to celebrate in the greater numbers going to university. So we need tuition fees, and we don’t want a cap on numbers. Who pays, and how?

Students should pay the lion’s share. They gain, on average, far more in higher earnings from going to university than they pay in tuition fees. 

How? It’s understandable if a block of debt (£60k?) puts some students off university. What about a graduate tax instead? Advantage? No lump of debt staring graduates in the face. Disadvantage? Very high-earning graduates might end up paying much more than the cost of their university education over their lifetime. The advantage looks interesting.

What next?