This blog is based on a full-length article published at https://www.brookings.edu/research/lessons-from-the-end-of-free-college-in-england/
Earlier this month, New York became the first US state to offer all but its wealthiest residents free tuition at public four-year institutions in the state. This new ‘Excelsior Scholarship’ doesn’t make college completely free, nor is it without significant restrictions. Still, it demonstrates the growing strength of the free college movement in the United States.
The free college movement in the US is typically associated with liberal and progressive politics, and motivated by concerns about rising inequality and declining investments in public goods like education. Americans are thus sometimes surprised to hear the story of the end of free college in England was built upon very similar motivations.
Until 1998, full-time students in England could attend public universities completely free of charge. Two decades later, most public universities in England now charge £9,250 – equivalent to about $11,380, or 18% more than the average sticker price of a U.S. public four-year institution.
Has this major restructuring of higher education finance over the last twenty years led the English system backwards or forwards in terms of improving quality, quantity, and equity in higher education? We find that at a minimum, ending free college in England has not stood in the way of rising enrollments, and institutional resources per student (one measure of quality) have increased substantially since 1998. Moreover, after many years of widening inequality, socioeconomic gaps in college attainment appear to have stabilized or slightly declined.
By Gill Wyness (UCL Institute of Education, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, and EconomicsofHE)
Labour’s much anticipated but yet-to-be confirmed policy to reduce the cap on university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year will be highly expensive, could leave universities £10 billion out of pocket – and would only help richer graduates. That, at least, has been the tone of a growing chorus of alarm sounding ahead of what might be one of Ed Miliband’s key pre-election pledges.
Universities are right to be concerned – they may well lose money out of this policy. It also appears a somewhat opportunistic move by Labour to please a proportion of the electorate. But despite this, there are reasons why the policy should not be totally condemned.
The raising of the cap on tuition fees charged by English universities to £9,000 per year in 2012 (and the accompanying increase in student loans) means that students are now leaving university with considerably more debt than they did under the previous system. Most mid-to-higher earning graduates are also repaying substantially more. A recent report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that students will leave university with around £20,000 more debt under the new system compared to the old system, with graduates in the top half of the earnings distribution paying back between £8,000 and £22,000 more in today’s money than they did before.
But despite these huge increases in private contributions, it does not currently look like the government will save much money as a result of the reforms. Continue reading →
A recent report by the much respected Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) recommends that UK policymakers pay much closer attention to Australia’s ‘advanced’ university funding system, which shares many of the features of the UK system, but at considerably lower taxpayer expense.
It is easy to see why HE finance policymakers should be tempted to look at Australia for inspiration. The recent finding that the RAB charge – or the proportion of unpaid student loan debt, that is covered by the taxpayer – may reach 45% shocked many. An IFS report out on Thursday put the figure at 43.3%. This means for every £1 lent to students 45p is not recovered. By contrast, the Australian equivalent – at 25% for standard tuition fee loans – is a much healthier figure.
On the surface, this would seem reason enough to adopt the features of the Australian tuition fee system. But this could result in unintended consequences if not thought through thoroughly. Continue reading →
Now that we have reached the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report, which paved the way for the mass expansion of the UK higher education system, it is worth examining whether our system of university finance has evolved accordingly.
In terms of finance, we’ve come a long way from the days of Robbins. Back in 1963, the system consisted largely of maintenance grants for poor students. There were none of the tuition fee loans, maintenance loans or bursaries that are such important aspects of today’s system. While we can argue about whether asking students to contribute to their education is a good or bad thing, there’s no doubt about the increasing complexity that the introduction of these aspects of finance has brought. Continue reading →