Tuition fees in England are set to be frozen for another year and minimum entry requirements to universities will be considered under proposals unveiled by the Government.
The long-awaited interim response to the Augar review of higher education outlines the Government’s intention to freeze the maximum amount a university can charge in tuition fees at £9,250 a year to deliver “better value for students” and keep the cost of higher education “under control”.
The maximum tuition fee rate would be frozen for one year, but further changes to the student finance system will be “considered” ahead of the next comprehensive spending review, the response says.
A raft of recommendations were made in the Post-18 Education and Funding review – an independent panel led by Philip Augar – which was published in 2019, including cutting the tuition fee cap to £7,500.
The Government has finally released its interim conclusion to the review – which says ministers are committed to introducing further reforms that will ensure a “just and financially sustainable” student finance system, drive up the quality of higher education provision and promote accessibility for students.
This will include consideration of “student finance terms and conditions, minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions, the treatment of foundation years and other matters,” it adds.
But the Government plans to consult on further reforms to the system in spring this year before setting out its final conclusion of the Augar report alongside the next comprehensive spending review.
Ministers will look at how the higher education teaching grant is used next year so that “more of taxpayers’ money” supports provision which aligns with the nation’s priorities – such as healthcare, Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and specific labour market needs.
The interim response says: “This gives reassurance to potential students that incentives are aligned to encourage courses with good job outcomes and reinforces the Government’s commitment to safeguarding the UK’s high-quality research base.
“We will also move the Teaching Capital fund from a broad formula allocation to a targeted bidding system, allocating capital funding to projects that will support high-quality provision in subjects aligned to the needs of the economy and contribute to the levelling up of disadvantaged areas of the UK.”
In a letter to the Office for Students on Thursday, the Education Secretary called on the regulator to reduce high-cost subject funding by 50% in 2021/22 for subjects which were not aligned with the Government’s priorities.
Addressing MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Williamson said: “Our proposed reform to the teaching grant for the academic year 2021/22 will allocate funding to deliver value for money for students and the taxpayer.
“Increasing support for strategic subjects such as engineering and medicine, while smashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as media studies.”
Former prime minister Theresa May launched the higher education funding review in February 2018.
In May 2019, the Augar review recommended that graduates should have to repay their student loans over 40 years and the interest rate on loans should be reduced to the level of inflation.
The independent panel also recommended that maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, of at least £3,000 a year, should be reintroduced.
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said it was “not good enough to kick the issue into the long grass” until the spending review.
She said: “Sadly this interim response confirms that there will not be a radical change to the current system. The Westminster government is wasting an opportunity to make a real difference for students and institutions.”
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), said: “Any reforms must be for the benefit of students, the economy and society and be backed by sufficient funding to ensure that every student receives a high-quality education which best suits their needs and aspirations.
“Enforcing minimum entry requirements for prospective university students would be a regressive move, preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds whose prior educational experiences have adversely affected their grades from attending university and ignoring the evidence that many of these students excel at university.
“A university degree remains a good choice for many and a growing number of jobs in business and public services require graduate-level skills; the economy and society cannot afford a reduction in the number of graduates.”
The Government also announced changes to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which currently rates universities as gold, silver or bronze.
Ministers will abandon plans to roll out subject-level ratings to reduce the burden on universities, and instead of running TEF every year, it will take place every four or five years.
There will also be four ratings instead of three, and the bottom category will cover providers that fail to show “sufficient evidence of excellence”, the Government said in its response to a review into TEF.