Among the welter of forecasts that followed the lifting of the tuition fees cap in 2010, there was only ever one whose realisation could truly be described as inevitable. Students who pay £9,000 instead of £3,000 are guaranteed to be more sceptical customers. So it has proved.
A third of students now believe their degree offers poor or very poor value for money – up by more than 10 per cent since 2012. Just as predictable is the solution favoured by students, and with them the Labour Party. That is to bring the top level of fees back down. Popular as this no doubt would be, it is economically unsound, and attacks the problem of student dissatisfaction from the wrong end.
If courses are proving poor value for money, universities must either improve them – by increasing tuition time, say – or students should consider whether it is worth paying to attend at all. Reducing fees would create a £1.7bn funding gap, difficult to fill without more and messier taxes. Even at £6,000, a number of degrees could hardly be said to offer value for money: lowering the fee to that level so that students won’t expect so much of a course betrays a lack of ambition for tertiary education. Moreover, the cost of a good degree tends to be higher than what students pay; hence the best institutions want the £9,000 cap raised, and students at these universities are less likely to feel ripped off.
At this stage, any further increase in fees is both politically toxic and, given the 45 per cent of student loans not being paid back, fiscally unwise. But if youth unemployment falls and loan repayments pick up, a rise reflecting inflation ought not to be dismissed out of hand.
The most worrying prediction ahead of the 2010 increase was that it would put off disadvantaged young people. That has so far proved false: applications in 2014 from this cohort were the highest ever, and double the level of a decade ago.
If the effect of higher fees is to discourage wealthier, less motivated students from attending unsatisfactory courses, that is something everyone should be able to live with. Or to put it in simpler terms: quality, not quantity.