Tuition fee reform did not spark university innovation, Cable laments

Former Liberal Democrat leader discusses the impact – and future – of student finance reform with former universities minister David Willets

Former cabinet minister Sir Vince Cable has said he regrets that 2011 university tuition fee reforms did not spark university innovation in courses.

Sir Vince served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from May 2010 to May 2015 and was the de facto second-in-command for the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government.

Recalling the Education Act 2011, Sir Vince lamented: “One other thing I regret is that we expected a lot more innovation in courses, the universities reforming – following the tuition fee reforms – and it never happened.”

He commented on student finance reform during the debut episode of his eponymous new podcast, Cable Comments, with his departmental colleague, the former universities minister, David Willets.

Tuition fee reform did not spark university innovation, Cable laments
David Willets, former universities minister, joined Sir Vince Cable for his new podcast

A decade on since the Act, the two men said the current model – tweaked since introduced – requires reform. Theresa May’s government increased the repayment threshold from £21,000 to £25,000 from 2018/19. This threshold is now £27,295.

Said Lord Willets: “The basic idea that by and large people who go into higher education are paid more, and therefore it’s reasonable to expect you to pay back if you’re in a well-paying job – but otherwise not to pay back – is a defensible principle that makes a lot of sense. All parties in government have operated a system like that.

“But, personally, I think the threshold at which people start repaying the loans is now too high, at approaching £30,000. You could imagine a new deal, lowering the threshold but cutting the interest rate, so you start paying back sooner and the debt doesn’t grow by as much.”

Willets said – if a minister today – he would focus on changing post-GCSE study to ensure that university candidates enter higher education having studied a more diverse field of subjects. At present, most 18-year-olds in England enter HE with level three qualifications in no more than four subjects. He described this as England’s “guilty secret”. He said universities should change recruitment processes to avoid people knowing “a lot about a little, but very little about everything else”.

Read more: Classify universities as local or national to restore purpose of HE, report recommends

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