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Former Education Secretary warns ministers to stop 'kicking around' tuition fees like a 'political football'

Justine Greening’s comments come as the PM prepares to deliver a major speech on education

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 18 February 2018 13:03 GMT
Justine Greening says student finance should stop being treated as a political football

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening has called on the Government to press ahead with reforms in higher education, urging ministers to “stop kicking around student finance like a political football”.

The comments from Ms Greening, who resigned from Theresa May’s Government last month, come as the Prime Minister prepares to deliver a major speech on education and as Damian Hinds, her successor, indicated tuition fees should partly be based on how a degree course could benefit a student’s future career.

The Education Secretary also announced that the Government will this week unveil its long-awaited review of university funding which will look at issues such as cutting or freezing tuition fees, as well as interest rates on loan repayments, which stand at up to 6.1 per cent.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Hinds said he wanted to see a system which would consider a course’s value for money as a factor in deciding the level at which fees are set.

But the review received a lukewarm reception from Ms Greening on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, who said that while she was in government she was “determined” not to kick the issue of university funding into the long grass and “spend time looking at things instead of taking action”.

She also warned that the review might have a “challenge” in deciphering which courses are more beneficial, adding: “I think many businesses with Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degree skill shortages will wonder whether it’s the right thing to do to make those more expensive.

“I think the most important thing now is to stop kicking around student finance like a political football and for young people really get to grips with one of the reforms that are now needed.”

The former cabinet minister also called for the review to reintroduce maintenance grants – a policy abolished by the coalition government – and suggested interest rates on student loans could be set at zero.

“I think broadly you fix a solution of maintenance grants and interests rates – perhaps have them at zero and literally just have students paying back what they’ve borrowed,” she said.

Ms Greening’s comments follow a report from the the Commons Treasury Select Committee – published on Sunday – that said the Government must reconsider “punitive” interest rates on student loans.

It said: “The Government has justified the existing level and structure of interest rates on student loans on the grounds that it is progressive. In reality, the student loan system has complex redistributive effects that are not strictly progressive.”

Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, also told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the Government review will not solve the problems facing higher education, adding that maintenance grants for poorer students remains the biggest issue and one ministers are silent on.

She said: “We have had three announcements of reviews in the last 12 months and eight years of the Conservatives that have damaged higher education and totally decimated our further education infrastructure.

“Another review isn’t going to solve the problem of the hike in interest rates which this Government has done and the tripling of tuition fees.

“Most students have said that the removal of maintenance grants is one of the biggest barriers to them at the moment and the Government has said nothing on that.”

Responding to the suggestion that fees could vary according to the kind of courses she said: “We are told that we need sciences and maths and therefore to make those degrees more expensive flies in the face of what our economy is going to need in the future.”

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