The review, while only one year in duration, will have long-lasting and far-reaching impacts. It will determine the future ability of the UK, through its top talent, to compete internationally. It will impact on the UK's economic prosperity relative to the rest of the world. And not only will it affect the UK's overall living standards but also how equal living standards will be across the UK.
Therefore, this review must get things right. It will be important for the review to achieve the the five following goals:
No barriers should stand in the way for talented individuals who wish to pursue higher education study. Individuals, across all walks of life, need sufficient support to set their sights high, and to achieve their career goals. This is where the current system has been successful, with there being no limit on the number of undergraduate students for universities in England. Record numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have had the opportunity to go to university.
The review must not reverse this progress. Fee differentiation, by subject of study or graduate earnings, is not without its risks. If studying to be a doctor costs three times that of nursing, an individual lacking in confidence could easily decide to choose the lower cost option – placing self-imposed limitations on their own career aspirations. The review must raise aspirations, not limit them.
The needs of employers change over time due to technology and competitive pressures. We are now living longer and retiring later. An individual's choice of education at one point in life should not define them for the rest of their lives.
The current system in England has been very successful in growing the numbers of young people undertaking three-year full-time degrees. However, it has been much less successful in providing opportunities for mature learners. The review must look at real changes to ensure the post-18 system incentivises flexible ways of learning over an individual's lifetime. UUK's project on flexible learning will be making recommendations to the review in the summer of 2018.
As well as strengthening routes into alternatives to university, the review should also strengthen support for individuals who initially choose an alternative route, but who later wish to progress on to higher levels of education. The review should break down barriers that stop collaborative models between universities, further education colleges and schools from truly flourishing.
While on average, the evidence overwhelmingly shows graduates earn more than non-graduates, an individual will face uncertainty over their own future career paths. They cannot predict what their own earnings will be. This uncertainty, combined with fears over repayment of student debt and how it may impact on future financial decisions (such as taking out a mortgage) can leave prospective students unsure of whether higher education is the right choice for them. These fears not only limit the life chances of individuals, they will also limit the potential of the UK's economy, restricting the supply of highly-skilled people.
The review will need to address, as a priority, what information prospective learners need to have to make the best decision for them on their post-18 education. A great strength of the current system is that it acts as a safety net and is a form of insurance – those who go on to earn more, pay much more towards the costs of their higher education, and those who do not earn above a threshold do not need to pay. No link between fee levels and graduate earnings is needed to make this happen – it already does. At a very minimum, the review will need to improve the basic understanding of how graduates contribute to the cost of their higher education – repaying a student loan operates much more similarly to tax collection than payment of a conventional debt.
Once learners have made the life-changing decision to enter university, it is only right that they are able to focus on achieving the best possible outcomes – not worrying about how they are going to make ends meet, or curtailing their studies due to financial difficulties.
The government argues maintenance loans help students with funding their living costs while studying. But those from disadvantaged backgrounds will be more likely to need a loan for living costs. Two individuals, who do the same degree, with an identical career path may go on to pay different amounts to government for the cost of their education, simply because one needed a loan for living costs. The review should consider whether grants for living costs, targeted to those who need them the most, should be reintroduced.
The UK's universities offer a world-renowned quality of education, attracting students from all over the globe. The UK's graduates are in demand internationally from employers, students benefit from cutting-edge facilities, learn from Nobel-prize winning researchers and are supported with advice to achieve the best results they can and to go on to find fulfilling jobs.
This can only happen through sustained and stable funding, which currently is delivered through the fees system in England. It is a fallacy that cutting fees would result in better value for money to students. It would mean reduced income for universities, which without replacement government funding could lead to fewer places available for students, a worse student experience and worse employment outcomes after graduation.
The review will be overseen by an independent panel, and it will be important for the panel to consult widely, and draw on evidence and expertise from across the UK – particularly on the potential implications of any changes to the system in England on the devolved administrations.