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Higher and further education, at a lower price?

07 January 2015

Next Thursday (15 January) is the application deadline date for most university and higher education courses for people wishing to start courses in September 2015. This week Ed Miliband said he’d like to tackle university tuition fees if Labour wins power after the General Election this May. If you’re a student and about to apply via the UCAS system, should you now think about waiting a year or two to see if you can get a discount? Cracking this topic involves knowledge of maths, economics, politics and history so it’s not an issue where anything is certain. But if you’re planning to take a higher education course and aren’t used to dealing with uncertainty, perhaps it’s time to think again. Any promises that the Labour Party makes on higher education fees will take time to implement. Even if there’s a majority Labour government with the ability to pass legislation before the summer break, it would be a tough call for them to devise a fees policy to take effect in September 2016. Higher education in England works on properly planned timescales which – up to now – have been respected by government. All this means that the fee-setting and student-enticing cycles will already be well under way by summer 2015 for 2016 entry. There would be time for a new government to offer some new form of fee reduction or scholarship but it would be a tough call to do it so quickly. And anyway – as students of politics will know – it’s fairly likely that there’ll be a split result in the May General Election and a longer process to form the new government. The balance of probabilities is against something happening so quickly. The Labour Party may decide not to promise anything because of the costs. They may not win enough votes to get elected. Even if they do, it may not be until the 2017 cycle that fees are reduced. It could be a long time to sit things out, particularly as the funding to provide lower fees might be found by cutting maintenance grants. It’s impossible to know if it will happen. Would it be a good idea? This depends on your point of view. England has an HE funding system which was described this week by OECD’s education guru, Angus Schleicher, as being risk-minimising, education-enhancing and relatively progressive in terms of social justice, although he didn’t quite use this language and he identified some flaws. I explained the choices in more detail in an earlier blog. Ideally the next government will increase spending on higher and further education but although the economics mean it would be a good idea, the maths and the politics may not agree.