After watching Newsnight, and Policy Editor Chris Cook’s scoop on David Willett’s idea to overhaul the tuition fee system – turning universities into debt collectors – I went to dig a bit more about Cambridge’s thoughts on what is currently research in its very early days before becoming policy. It’s certainly a far, far way from that. Cambridge rebuked all notion, and knowledge, of the plans, as did Oxford. In any case, it’s an interesting and certainly controversial proposal to change what is a currently a financial burden on the government. As I write in the piece by means of analysis, wading into policy on universities and their funding will more than likely prove to be a poisoned chalice for any party that wants to take it on and make firm commitments.
Writing about education has always been a really interesting and exciting part of journalism for me. Having gone through the system, it’s personal, and we each have our own views. In seeing how education can enrich and contribute so fundamentally to people’s lives, its reporting is of vital importance. Journalism can hold policymakers to account, and inform people’s opinions on where our education system is going, and it’s a huge responsibility to report education accurately and fairly, avoiding the pitfalls of political bias.
The University of Cambridge has said that there are no plans to pursue an overhaul of the student finance system, masterminded by the former Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts. A spokesperson has said that Willetts has not yet formally approached the University or involved it in the research.
Writing in the Financial Times after BBC Newsnight uncovered the proposal, Willetts outlined his idea: “We should give universities the opportunity to buy the debt that their graduates owe.”
The policy would, in effect, turn universities into debt-collectors, replacing the current system of the government providing undergraduates with loans using taxpayers’ money. It could also lead to a rise in tuition fees. Given its radical nature, Willetts sought to clarify that this research is not government policy. He also said that current IT systems would make this change impossible, and legislation would need to be passed.
Behind Willett’s idea is a stronger incentive for universities to maintain contact and to ensure the best employment prospects for its graduates, which in turn would allow students to pay back more of the debt sooner. He adds: “They would gain, as would their students, from improving graduate employment rates and earnings.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Oxford University has said: “The University has yet to see a proposal from the government. Were such a proposal to be put to us, we would consider it carefully.”
Willetts resigned from the post of Minister for Universities in the cabinet reshuffle earlier this month. He was replaced by Greg Clark.
Chris Cook, Newsnight’s policy editor, wrote that Mr Willetts had presented this idea to leading institutions. This policy would not be for all universities – Willetts states that some universities have poorer employment outcomes and lower graduate repayment rates.
Cambridge graduates have a 4.3 per-cent unemployment rate in the first year out of study. According to a report published earlier this month, 92.1 per cent of university graduates were in employment or further study six months after graduating in 2012-13.
There will be concerns that such a measure would favour students who are more likely to repay student loans more quickly, typically those who study medicine, engineering or science. Willetts himself shares the worry that universities may be less likely to admit students studying subjects with lower employment rates. Students coming from lower-income families could also be at risk.
There will be undoubtedly some reticence from government and other parties to commit to any firm policy on student loan financing. This follows the furore surrounding Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to scrap tuition fees at the 2010 election. On entering a coalition with the Conservatives, it was announced that universities would be able to charge a maximum of £9,000 a year. At the time, Willetts said this was a “progressive” reform. However, the move was heralded by widespread protests, including in central London, and a deep-seated anger against the Liberal Democrat leader.
Labour announced in April that they “may” replace the current maximum tuition fee of £9,000 with a lower £6,000 maximum. Yet at the same time, Labour said they are yet to agree any long-term policy. The party said in 2011 that such a measure would be financed by reversing a cut in corporate tax that banks pay. The Conservatives attacked this as an “unfunded spending promise.”