Today’s UCAS application figures give us a stark reminder that the Tory-led Government’s policies are failing not just our young people, but anyone wishing to go to university to better their skills and further their careers. The Government is hitting the aspiration and ambition of our young people.
Compared to 2011, applications from UK students are down by 8.7 %, with the biggest drop coming from English students. It is no coincidence that this fall in applications to university comes in the first year that students will have to pay up to £9,000 per year to study. When the Government took the decision to treble fees, they also took the decision to cut the teaching grant to universities by 80 per cent, forcing universities into a situation where they had to charge the maximum fee.
When the fee cap was trebled, the Government claimed that £9,000 fees would be the exception and not the norm, and that most students would face fees of no more than £7,500. The Government got this disastrously wrong, and now anyone wishing to go to university is paying the high price of this unfair policy.
David Cameron claims to have the interests of the country at heart, but he is betraying our future – our young people. The opportunity for young people from all backgrounds to access higher education is under threat. Fees of up to £9,000 a year are already putting off many teenagers from applying at all, or encouraging them to choose the cheapest university rather than the one which offers the best course for them.
And the latest figures show that it isn’t only young people that are being betrayed by the chaotic university policies being pursued by this Government – mature students, who are already in the workforce and who understand the realities of debt, are being put off going to university to develop their skills and better their career chances.
This threatens our competitiveness and our future economic growth, too. Our competitor nations are investing in their higher education systems despite austerity – the UK and Romania are the only two countries in the OECD not investing money in universities, science and research. We need our workforce to have the knowledge and skills to be as productive and efficient as the most competitive economies, to attract the business and investment – and jobs – our economy relies on.
That means we need the kind of system Labour believes in, in which a student’s choice of university is based on talent and potential, not finances. Labour would reduce the tuition fee cap to £6,000 now, paid for by reversing the corporation tax cut on the banks, and asking the highest earners to pay more over their lifetime. This would saddle students with less debt, give people the opportunities that they deserve and equip our country with the skills and knowledge that we need now and in the future to compete.
Shabana Mahmood MP is Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister.