For students voting in the 2017 General Election, there is much to consider – with fees and the future of higher education featuring strongly in the campaigns and manifestos.
Political parties are keen to attract student voters. Not only can their votes make a big difference in battleground seats, but they are also the potential party members of the future. With a UK student population in excess of two million, there are also a lot of them out there.
So what do students in England need to know?
Higher education doesn’t have its own section in the Conservative manifesto, but there are many parts of the Tory agenda with consequences for universities, students and graduates.
A big consideration is how controls on immigration would restrict access to student visas. This is aligned to Theresa May’s intention to keep international student numbers down. Universities are anxious about this, as fewer international students would mean a reduction in income, possibly resulting in course closures and job losses.
A Conservative government would also make it a condition for universities charging the maximum level of tuition fees to be involved in sponsoring an academy or founding a free school.
It would also expand University Investment Funds, which provide finance to turn new discoveries into profitable companies or products – such as turning new drugs research into medicine.
The Conservatives would also fund schemes to get graduates to serve in schools, police forces, prisons, and social care and mental health organisations – so they can use “their talents to tackle entrenched social problems”, as detailed in their manifesto.
Labour’s manifesto places university education in their proposed “National Education Service”. This is basically cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use. Labour points out that university tuition is free in many northern European countries, and that average debt for UK students on graduation is now £44,000.
Labour pledges to reintroduce maintenance grants and completely abolish tuition fees – their biggest spending commitment, costing £11.5-£13.5 billion.
Jeremy Corbyn has also stated his ambition to write off existing student debts. Abolishing fees has clearly resonated with the electorate: a poll by YouGov shows it has been instrumental in tightening the race between Corbyn and May.
Labour’s policy is popular with those who believe higher education is a “collective good” and a public service which should be free. It also means people may not be deterred from going to university because they fear debt.
The Labour Party manifesto claims:
There is a real fear that students are being priced out of university education. Last year saw the steepest fall in university applications for 30 years.
But data shows that the number of people going to university, relative to the size of the 18-year-old cohort, is actually increasing – including applications from disadvantaged groups.
It has also been shown that the abolition of fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants would in fact benefit higher-earning graduates. This is because under the new system, these graduates wouldn’t have to repay any money.
For this reason, the Education Policy Institute says Labour’s plan is not an effective use of public money, as it will not help the mobility of underrepresented or disadvantaged students.
At this election, the Liberal Democrats hope to regain some of the student vote. But their 2017 manifesto doesn’t try and win over students by promising to abolish fees. Instead, it promises to “establish a review of higher education finance in the next Parliament”.
This noncommittal position avoids a repeat of the politically costly pledge to abolish fees made in their 2010 manifesto, which they then abandoned when in coalition government with the Conservatives – although the party has committed to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students. These were replaced with maintenance loans by the Conservative government last year. A move which has proved unpopular with many.
Of particular importance to current and future graduates is the party’s pledge to stop the retrospective raising of rates on student loans. Student loan repayments are a growing issue as millions of students and graduates are about to experience large increases in the interest rates on their loans because of rising inflation.
UKIP pledges to restore maintenance grants. The party sees the abolition of tuition fees as a long-term goal for when economic conditions allow.
In the meantime, undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses would be free – provided graduates go on to work in these subject areas and pay tax in the UK for at least five years.
Higher education doesn’t receive much attention in the Green manifesto, but the party does pledge to “scrap university tuition fees”.