Theresa May under pressure to cut cost of university as public rejects high fees and huge debts

New poll finds big support for fees to be slashed or scrapped and for interest on loans to be axed

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 12 August 2017 21:35 BST
Students protest against tuition fees earlier this year
Students protest against tuition fees earlier this year (PA)

Theresa May is being urged today to cut the soaring cost of going to university and stop students from being punished with debts of more than £50,000, a poll for The Independent reveals.

Almost two-thirds of people want annual tuition fees – which could reach up to £9,250 this autumn at some institutions – to be slashed or scrapped.

And the poll, by BMG Research, shows even stronger support for axing the interest charged on student loans, which will rise to an eye-watering 6.1 per cent next month.

The results come just days before next week’s A-level results, when tens of thousands of young people will learn if they have achieved the marks to go to university, while worrying about the bills.

The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has blamed “very high” interest rates as a key reason why three-quarters of those students will probably never pay off their loans in full.

Debts are already the highest in the developed world and will reach £57,000 for graduates from the poorest backgrounds, after maintenance grants were axed and replaced with loans.

Meanwhile, university vice-chancellors have been accused of using the income from sky-high fees to pay themselves fat-cat salaries, instead of on improving teaching.

Now BMG Research has found that 65 per cent of the public want fees cut, with 34 per cent favouring a return to £3,000-a-year charges – the cost before 2012 – and 31 per cent wanting them axed altogether.

No less than 68 per cent of people are calling for an end to interest on loans, which is set at the Retail Price Index (RPI) level of inflation plus 3 per cent, which means 6.1 per cent from this autumn.

Lord Adonis, the former Labour education minister, said the findings showed the game was up for the current fee system, with debts set to hit £100,000 once compound interest is added on.

“The university cartel to keep fees at £28,000 for a three year course won’t last,” he said, having also described the system as “Frankenstein’s monster”.

“The public won’t put up with students having to take on debts of up to £100,000, including the new, higher rate of interest being charged.

“Fees need to come down sharply. Either the vice-chancellors cut fees themselves, or they will very likely be abolished outright. It’s their choice.”

Amatey Doku, the National Union of Students’ vice president for higher education said: “This shows that the public do not believe it is fair to burden students with such enormous debt.

“They are right. The current system that leaves students with upwards of £50,000 is broken and needs urgent review.

“This Government needs to stop sticking its head in the sand and realise it is on the wrong side of public opinion. NUS believes fees should be completely abolished.”

Fees were trebled to £9,000 by the Cameron-Clegg coalition, and universities will be able to charge a maximum of £9,250 next term, including for students that have already started their courses, and by inflation every following autumn until 2020.

Research by the Sutton Trust found the daunting cost is putting more young people off higher education, as they fear paying back their loans will affect their ability to take out mortgages and have children.

In particular, it raised the alarm over the proportion of pupils from poor backgrounds intending to go to university falling to a seven-year low of 61 per cent.

However, ministers have insisted the loans system is “progressive” because lower-earning graduates have their debts written off after 30 years.

No one starts repayments until they are earning more than £21,000 a year and the extra income has allowed more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to partake in higher education, they say.

The Department for Education defended the leap in interest rates, saying: “Student loans are not like commercial loans as they have more favourable terms, including repayments being linked to income and not to the amount borrowed.”

Under the system, monthly payments remain the same, but the length of the loan extends.

Jeremy Corbyn is pressing for the abolition of tuition fees altogether, arguing they “saddle students with debt that blights the start of their working lives”.

However, the Labour leader came under fire for backtracking on a pledge to also “deal with” historic student debt, a policy the party has now downgraded to an “ambition”.

As well as cost, universities have also been criticised for offering more students places regardless of their exam results, potentially lowering standards.

Unconditional offers to study at some of Britain’s leading institutions have more than doubled over the past five years, as they compete to entice students, figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph showed.

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