Policy, Principles and People: The Student Funding Debate

Alison Kennell, University Secretary at York St John University, considers the recent discussions regarding university tuition fees and the wider debate on funding policy affecting higher education and students’ personal finances.

The Labour Party manifesto pledge to scrap university tuition fees in the run up to the June General Election has reignited debate on funding policy over the last month.

Debates on funding policy have gained new audiences and achieved greater traction because they have given the issue a ‘human face’ –  reminding us that policy needs to be underpinned by principles and understood in the context of its impact on people.

Funding policy has an impact on our ability to deliver to a wider economic and social agenda

Debate on tuition fees has been animated not just in national press but also in the higher education media. Vice-Chancellors, including Professor David Phoenix (Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University) have put forward their views alongside other academics such as Professor Claire Callender.

David Phoenix argues for a re-balancing of student funding (borrowing vs grants), taking account of the economic needs to deliver to the skills agenda and also the importance of arresting the continuing decline in part-time study.

Callender reports the research outcomes of a study conducted with Professor Geoff Mason, arguing that the fear of debt limits the horizons of potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The recent decline in applications for what were previously NHS-funded programmes is a further illustration of the point.

Both Phoenix and Callender remind us that the issue of funding policy is intrinsically linked to the core purpose of the public university – arguing against a paradigm that positions us as businesses delivering courses for the private benefit of individuals rather than a greater social good.

We need to see student finances as part of the wider picture of challenges facing young people

Martin Lewis (moneysavingexpert.com) approaches the issue of funding policy from the very different perspective of personal finance yet manages to find some common ground with voices from the higher education sector.

Lewis believes that there is not a fundamental problem with the current loan system – given that the cap on what students repay once in employment is the key determinant of what is payable on a month-by-month basis, rather than the magnitude of the total debt. What Lewis takes issue with is how the offer is branded – arguing that describing it as a ‘graduate tax’ would be more accurate and carry less stigma than a ‘loan’.

What Phoenix and Lewis appear to have in common is a shared view of the inadequacy of maintenance grants to support the increasing living costs of students. This is particularly acute in London (as potentially evidenced through student retention issues).

Lewis suggests that overall funding levels are simply too low to support living costs whilst studying. This reflects wider social challenges – a lack of affordable housing, rising utility bills and other living costs. For those without access to the ‘bank of mum and dad’ or reliable, manageable, part-time work as an additional subsidy, the challenge of making ends meet whilst studying can simply be too much.

With the focus on tuition fees likely to continue during the current parliamentary session, there is an opportunity for universities to continue to emphasise that principles and people are at least as important as pound notes in the current policy debate.