Wrangling between DfE and Treasury over direction of policy appears to be main roadblock
Publishing proposals on the future of higher education financing in England over the summer, even though Parliament is in recess, would be in the interests of universities and “good public policy”, a leading sector figure said.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said time was already running out to have a “proper consultation” on reforms including possible changes to student loans terms – or a cut to the tuition fee cap – before final decisions were taken in the Westminster government’s autumn spending review.
The government said in January, in its interim response to the 2019 Augar review of post-18 education, that it planned “to consult on further reforms to the higher education system in spring 2021” before setting out its full response at the spending review.
However, the consultation has been repeatedly delayed, with some observers now believing that with Westminster in its summer recess, it is likely that any options might not emerge until September or might not even be consulted on at all.
Mr Hillman said he still hoped that details could appear during the recess, “otherwise there will be nothing like the necessary amount of time to fulfil a proper consultation exercise”.
He said that the rules around making announcements while Parliament was not sitting were not completely clear and that it was arguably on the “right side of the rules” to release the proposals during the summer.
“I think it is definitely in the sector’s interest and in the interest of good public policy that these documents come out in the recess, even if it means there can’t be some formal parliamentary statement on them,” Mr Hillman added.
One vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education that it probably was not necessary to wait until Parliament returned, but a bigger stumbling block remained No 10 and different parts of government reaching agreement on the proposals.
It is thought there has been wrangling between the Treasury, which wants higher education reforms to concentrate on saving money in light of the burgeoning taxpayer costs of student loans, and the Department for Education (DfE), which has more of an eye on shifting the balance between higher and further education.
Sorting out “differences of view” between the DfE, the Treasury and No 10 was the “key issue”, said the vice-chancellor, who added that there were signs that the costs of the student loan book might turn out to be a more pressing focus.
This could be dealt with “through technical changes to the loan regime”, such as repayment terms “coupled with a long-term fee freeze”, while the government might still top up funding for subjects it wanted to encourage through extra teaching grant.
Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said any technical proposals had to be set against what the government’s political objectives were around education, including more of a focus on technical and further education.
But he said the Treasury was “in hawkish mode on spending after the commitments to fight the pandemic”, which could end up working against any education reforms.
“HE and FE proposals will have to cut it against big spending proposals elsewhere,” and it was “entirely possible” that both could “come out of this in a worse state than they went in”, he said.
There was also a possibility that the timing of the spending review meant that it might “simply be too early” for the government to fully respond to Augar and set out a broader tertiary education policy backed by appropriate funding. “There is still a very good chance that this particular can will be kicked further down the road,” Professor Westwood said.