Universities UK welcomes proposals to encourage more people to undertake post-18 qualifications to enhance their lives and employment prospects. The review recommendations include some positive measures that UUK has been making a case for:
a focus on encouraging more flexible learning with improved opportunity to ensure the most diverse range of learners can benefit from higher and further education
addressing concerns about living costs with maintenance grants targeted to help those students most in need
capping the rate of interest students pay while they are still studying
The panel has outlined in the strongest terms its view that the unit of resource – the investment needed to fund each student – must be protected. If fees are cut to £7,500, there is a considerable risk that the government will not make up the funding gap in full (around £1.8 billion a year) through teaching grant funding, which would be a bad deal for students.
Other recommendations and issues which concern universities include:
the removal of loan funding for students on foundation years which is currently an important route for capable students from challenging or deprived backgrounds to make the step into higher education
the knock-on impact of changes for universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
the inevitable confusion these proposals will cause for students, their families, schools and the higher education sector about what happens next and when
potential restrictions on access and choice based on narrow conceptions of value
whether the required replacement funding will be allocated in a way that allows universities to continue offering diversity and choice, or comes with strings attached
the likelihood of a more fragmented system for accessing funds for widening access and participation activities, which could impact social mobility
Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:
"On the face of it the fee-level recommendations may look good for students, but unless the government gives a cast-iron guarantee on full replacement funding, it could prove to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.
"I recognise there are difficult choices to be made on public funding, but cutting fees without replacement funding would be a political choice which hurts students, limits opportunity, damages universities, decreases the number of highly-skilled employees that business needs, and reduces our international competitiveness at a time when modern Britain needs it most.
"There are very welcome proposals to encourage flexible learning, to provide maintenance grants for those students most in need and to cap interest on student loans.
"The next prime minister must look at the full package to consider the impact of these recommendations and consult properly with students, universities, colleges and business."
Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said:
"Studying at university is a transformative experience that remains a good investment for graduates. Anyone with the will and potential to study at a UK university should have the opportunity to do so, whatever their background.
"These recommendations open up new avenues for more flexible study and lifelong learning, which employers and our economy need. But we need to ensure the government doesn't close the door on student choice by cutting funding and restricting access to university.
"With around 300,000 new places needed at universities over the next decade as the 18-year-old population rises, it is more important than ever to ensure we maintain investment in our world-leading sector.
"Further discussion must now take place across the sector and government, including the devolved administrations. We will consult with our members on the feasibility and impact of the recommendations and ensure they benefit students, employers and communities across all four nations of the UK."