Higher education

What would UCU like to see?

Higher education has undergone a great deal of change in recent years. The amount that universities can charge for tuition has risen to £9,000 per year, although the amount each student pays varies greatly depending on which part of the UK they are from and where they choose to study. As tuition fees have risen, block grant funding for teaching has fallen, and English universities have also had the cap on student numbers removed. The number of full-time undergraduate students has risen, but the number of part-time and mature students has fallen dramatically.

UCU has called on the next Westminster government to look again at student finance and consider radical alternatives to the current English system of tuition fees, ensuring that an individuals’ concerns about finance are not a barrier to their ambition. Additional funding resource is required to close the public investment gap with international competitors.

Rather than charge students for their education, UCU proposes that large, profitable employers who benefit from the plentiful supply of graduates should pay a new Business Education Tax (BET) in the form of raised corporation tax. This innovative, practical and radical approach would produce more money for higher education than the current tuition fee scheme, and would cost less to administer.

UCU would also like to see measures put in place to better support part time, mature and postgraduate study. Postgraduate students are vital for the replenishment of the higher education workforce, and more funded studentships are required. Greater flexibility in funding for part-time study is also needed to ensure that higher education is accessible to everyone.

The valuable contribution made by international students must also be recognised; they should be removed from net migration targets and the government should work to recalibrate the national attitude to immigration and promote the UK’s colleges and universities as welcoming places to study.

In terms of research, UCU would like to see a real terms increase in the research budget to around 3% of GDP to bring the UK in line with other countries such as Germany and the US, as well as an increase in the number of research council-funded studentships. More broadly, UCU feels the time is right to consider a wide-ranging independent review of research policy, with a broad membership base and opportunities for genuine consultation with staff, students and employers.

What is each party proposing?

Conservative Party

  • Maintain £9000 tuition fee in England
  • A REF style teaching inspectorate linked to funding for universities
  • Ensure that there is a University Technical College within reach of every city
  • Review highly trusted visa status and clamp down on ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK
  • Expand degree-level apprenticeships
  • Postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses

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(98 votes. Average rating: 2.43 out of 10)

Green Party

  • Scrap university tuition fees and cancel student debt
  • Consider scrapping fees for academic postgraduate courses
  • Ensure no restrictions on foreign students and allow students to work in the UK for two years after graduation
  • Reintroduce block grant funding

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(110 votes. Average rating: 7.62 out of 10)

Labour Party

  • Lower tuition fees in England to £6,000
  • Tighten up the system for short-term student visas whilst welcoming overseas university students
  • Raise the student maintenance grant from £3,400 to £3,800 a year for families who pay basic rates of income tax

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(102 votes. Average rating: 5.39 out of 10)

Liberal Democrats

  • Maintain current £9000 tuition fee in England
  • Establish review of higher education funding
  • Reinstate post-study work visas for STEM graduates who can find graduate-level employment within six months of graduating

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(84 votes. Average rating: 2.49 out of 10)

Plaid Cymru

  • Provide a subsidy to students resident in Wales who wish to study in Wales
  • Reintroduce the post-study work visa for two years for students who have qualified from Welsh universities
  • More support for university students of STEM subjects who remain in Wales to study

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(54 votes. Average rating: 4.76 out of 10)

Scottish National Party

  • No tuition fees for students resident in Scotland and supportive of lower fees across UK
  • Seek reintroduction of the post-study work visa for two years following graduation

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(75 votes. Average rating: 5.93 out of 10)

UCU analysis

One of the key differences between the parties on higher education is their stance on university funding for English institutions and tuition fees. The two coalition partners are both committed to the current £9000 figure for England, although the Liberal Democrats have proposed a review of higher education funding.  Labour have pledged to lower fees to £6000, paid for by restrictions to tax relief on pensions of the highest earners and a clampdown on tax avoidance. They would also raise the student maintenance grant by £400 to £3800.

The Green Party are proposing scrapping fees altogether (possibly also for academic post grad courses) and cancelling student debt. The SNP are committed to their policy of no fees for Scottish students and have said they are supportive of lower fees across the UK, whilst Plaid are proposing subsidies to students resident in Wales who wish to study in Wales.

On student visas Labour have pledged to tighten the rules around short term visas, whilst welcoming overseas students and the Lib Dems will reinstate post-study work visas for STEM graduates employed at a certain level.  The Green Party would place no restrictions on foreign students, allow students to work in the UK for two years post-graduation and would reintroduce block grant funding for universities.

The Conservatives will introduce a REF style inspectorate framework to ‘recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality’ and will require more data such as career paths of past graduates to be made available to potential students.  They also plan to expand degree-level apprenticeships and ensure that every city has a University Technical College within its reach.

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