1. ITV Report

Theresa May launches review into 'expensive' university fees

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

Theresa May has launched a sweeping review of higher education as she admitted to serious concerns about the accessibility of "expensive" university courses.

The Prime Minister acknowledged the current system of tuition fees reaching up to £9,250 a year is leaving the poorest students in England with the highest debt burden.

She added that hopes that universities would adopt a "competitive" system of highly varied fees had not come to pass since the higher fee rate was introduced.

In a speech in Derbyshire this afternoon, Mrs May argued that the needs of all children were not being met: "We must have an education system at all levels which serves the needs of every child.

"And if we consider the experience which many young people have of our system as it is, it is clear that we do not have such a system today."

To give youngsters the skills they need to succeed, they need "an education and training system which is more flexible and more diverse than it is today," the Prime Minister added.

Mrs May insisted that it is right that students contribute to the cost of their education, but that the review will look at how much they contribute, the terms of their contribution and the duration.

"I believe - as do most people, including students - that those who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it.

"That is only fair," she said .

Theresa May talks with pupils and staff during a visit to Featherstone High School in west London. Credit: PA
Annual tuition fee charge at most English universities
Interest rate currently charged on student loans

The review comes amid widespread concern about the debt burden on students and the high interest rates, currently 6.1%, on loans.

The year-long Government-led review, supported by an independent chair and panel, will look at all aspects of student funding, including the maintenance support available to help with the cost of living.

Mrs May said the review will "examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed" which includes "how disadvantaged students and learners receive maintenance support, both from Government and universities and colleges".

She also acknowledged the concerns of students, parents and grandparents about the levels of debt faced by graduates.

The competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged has simply not emerged.

All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses.

Three year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course.

We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.

– Theresa May
Education secretary Damian Hinds said the cost of a course may be linked to its usefulness. Credit: PA

The Education Secretary Damian Hinds has said that tuition fees should reflect the economic benefit which graduates will make to society.

He also said officials may look to "stimulate...diversity and variety" in fee structures among higher education institutions.

Former education secretary Justine Greening has urged the Government to reintroduce maintenance grants for poorer students.

She told Peston On Sunday that loans for fees should be scrapped in favour of a 9% annual tax on all earnings over a certain threshold for a limited period, meaning that those who do better in their careers pay more.

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Mrs May said the review will "examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed" which includes "how disadvantaged students and learners receive maintenance support, both from Government and universities and colleges".

The Prime Minister also used the speech in Derbyshire to encourage a shift in the "outdated attitude" that prizes academic qualifications over technical skills.

She said her vision is for "equality of access to an academic university education which is not dependent on your background", but "a much greater focus on the technical alternatives too".

Ideas being considered include giving better careers guidance about future earnings potential and the kinds of qualifications that will be needed.

Student fees have risen dramatically in recent years. Credit: PA

The issue of university finance has become a key political battleground with the Tories struggling to win over young voters from a Labour party which has promised to scrap fees.

The review, expected to conclude in 2019, will also consider how to support life-long learning to help people retrain.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: "We don't need a review of a broken system; we need an entire restructure of the education sector. It's time the Tories stopped tinkering around the edges of an unsustainable funding model and instead support students now.

"The truth is the Tories can't compete with Labour's education policy, which includes scrapping fees entirely and bringing back maintenance grants and the EMA."

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said any changes must maintain "stable and sustainable funding" for universities.

She called for new investment to help the poorest students with their living costs and tackling the decline in mature and part-time study.