My Lords, how refreshing it is to have a report that takes a holistic view of higher education funding. From Lord Robbins onwards, we have had a series of reviews of university funding taking an overly market approach. In this report, astonishingly produced in under a year, we have a new attitude. It has pipped the Augar review to the post and is a perfect example of the good work that can be done by the committees of this House.
We have reached saturation point in undergraduate degrees and in international students. We are not treating the latter as well as we should; and when we have too many, they do not get the British university atmosphere that they came here to enjoy. If we rely too heavily on international students for income, our universities become vulnerable to a change in the taste for foreign study or restrictions placed on studying abroad by our main suppliers, such as China. More international students will eventually impact adversely on home undergraduate numbers through housing and teaching pressure.
Student loans are not working. Half will never be paid back. It was predictable from the start of the new system that many people would never earn enough to repay them. Indeed, it indicates to women that government policy makes it sensible to find a husband while at college and never work, or take the lowest-paying part-time jobs to avoid reaching the threshold for repayment. Outstanding student debt will reach £1 trillion by 2035, it has been said. The Student Loans Company has found that 78,700 former students who owe money have left the country owing an average of £15,000 each. A quarter are EU students, who will continue to be eligible for loans if they have started a course before we leave the EU. It will be no bad thing for them to be treated as being as financially responsible as other international students, who outnumber them year by year.
Tuition fees have to stay as they are. They have replaced government funding. A cut, as has been suggested, in fees for one student by, say, £1,000 a year, may result in a loss of millions by universities; the first economy they might make would be the valuable outreach and student support funds that have done so much to attract disadvantaged students and keep them on course.
As for the Corbyn election gimmick of abolishing fees, that would simply place university funding entirely in the hands of the Government. Government budgeting would soon mean universities or courses closing, numbers reducing and a reversal of all that has been achieved by way of social mobility in the past few years. Flexibility, as recommended in the report, is a good thing, but credit transfer is by no means the panacea. We have to recognise that there are differences in the quality of universities that make straight transfer inappropriate, and that not all subjects are taught in transferable chunks.
One area that is urgent and where all interested parties have called for reform is the restoration of maintenance grants, not loans. Students are apparently more worried about their living costs than about their tuition fees. Social mobility and diversity are not promoted by financial or other necessity, leading to studying at the local university and living at home. How easy it must be, yet disadvantageous, to live in one town, study there, marry there, work there and never get to meet youngsters from the rest of the country at the university of your choice. Upward social mobility is associated with moving to a large city and leaving one’s region of birth. In Wales, there is now a £1,000 per annum maintenance grant for all students and means-tested grants for living costs. If Wales can do it, will the Government consider doing the same for England?
I also put in a plea for special treatment for nursing and medical students, of whom we have too few. Given the shortage, I ask for their fees to be written off after a time in the profession and/or for them to receive a full maintenance grant. Will the Government take that step?
Recent reviewers have seen higher education merely in terms of economic or private benefit, and it is time we stopped doing that. The evidence shows that higher levels of education are linked to a range of positive social, well-being and cultural benefits for the individual, their families and society. The 2013 study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills waxed lyrical on this. I do not have time to quote it but it is worth a read.
Recognition of the wider benefits of higher education will place the debate about fees in a proper frame- work. This report achieves just that and I congratulate the committee.