Tuition fee cuts could harm universities, business leaders warn

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A cut in tuition fees would be a “gross abrogation of responsibility”, business leaders warn, arguing much-needed change to further education systems should not come at the expense of university funding.

A wide-ranging review of post-18 education, launched by Theresa May last year, is examining how future students can contribute to the cost of their studies, with suggestions that fees could be dropped to as low as £6,500.

The Government must not “rob Peter to pay Paul”, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry Carolyn Fairbairn will warn today, calling for current fees to be maintained.

In a speech to be delivered at Cambridge Regional College, she is expected to call for a new system to join academic and technical education, delivering high-skilled, high-paid jobs that fit firms’ needs. And, amid fears over the impact on participation, Ms Fairbairn warns that a cut to tuition fees would do “profound harm” to universities, students, and the economy.

“Not only do our universities educate people to the highest levels, they are also some of our biggest regional employers, supporters of new businesses and incomparable vehicles of soft power,” Ms Fairbairn is set to say.

“Our universities are a precious national asset. They should be protected and nurtured. A cut in tuition fees would be a gross abrogation of responsibility.”

Early drafts of the review, set to be published this spring, have prompted concern that tuition fee reductions would hit poorer students, who do not have to pay fees back in full, hardest.

While the current system “isn’t perfect”, Ms Fairbairn argues, it does ensure that university is accessible to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

“England now has greater participation in university among young people from poorer backgrounds than at any time in history,” she will say. “Yet there’s a real risk here. If politicians fan the flames of fear about the cost of university, they could end up deterring the very people who could most benefit from university and cause them needless harm.”

In a series of calls to policymakers, the director-general, representing 190,000 businesses, is to argue in favour of new entitlements to an additional qualification between A-level and university degrees. Colleges could play a new role in education systems, she argues, creating a profound shift in favour of a higher-skilled economy, while universities should be supported to offer shorter and more flexible courses to people later in life.

“To meet the needs of a flexible modern economy, the education system itself must become more agile,” Ms Fairbairn is set to say.

“As a national resource, colleges have been underestimated. And frankly, post-Brexit – where education is a rare homegrown source of strength, we shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “The Government is conducting a major review of post-18 education and funding to ensure we have a system that is flexible, joined up, accessible to all and provides value for money for both students and taxpayers.

“Our new T – Levels – the technical equivalent to A Levels – are designed with over 200 leading employers so that students are learning the skills and getting the experience needed to land a great job in a skilled profession, go onto a higher level apprenticeship or university. On top of this, to support our reforms in delivering high-quality apprenticeships we will be investing over £2.5bn in the programme annually by 2019-20.”