Public funding

What would UCU like to see?

UCU believes that any future government should commit to increased public spending on the knowledge economy. The UK currently spends just 0.7% of GDP on public funding for tertiary education, less than many global competitors; spending on research is also below average for the European Union.

Additional public resource is required to close these funding gaps, remove financial barriers for those who wish to access post-school education and ensure that our research base is resilient and competitive. Post-school education has an intrinsic social value and represents an excellent return on public investment, so allocating appropriate resource to the knowledge economy should be a core commitment for any future government.

Policy makers should look at redesigning the way in which post-school education is funded. Tuition fees for public universities in England are currently on of the highest in the world, and the system of fee loans is not producing significant savings for the taxpayer when compared with the system it replaced.

In further education, take-up of 24+ advanced learning loans has been lower than estimated since their introduction in 2013/14. Government should look again at student finance and consider radical alternatives to the current system including full public funding for education, additional financial support to encourage retention of young people in education and personalised funding.

We would encourage any future government to commit the UK to funding tertiary education at a level that can close the international competitive gap in investment with other countries and enable the UK to compete on an equal footing.

UCU has vocally condemned the recent decision to cut the funding of the non-apprenticeship skills budget by around 24% as these cuts will place at risk many courses designed to provide flexible learning opportunities for young people to gain vital qualifications or help older people retrain or update their skills.

UCU supports an education system which helps people to reach their full potential, regardless of age or background, at minimum cost to the individual. Making education achievable and affordable for all who would benefit is a policy challenge any civilised society must meet. Yet the direction of policy in recent decades has been to make the cost of education more expensive, not less.

Rather than charge students for their education, UCU proposes charging large, profitable employers who benefit from the plentiful supply of graduates through a new Business Education Tax (BET) which would raise the main rate 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.

What is each party proposing?



Conservative Party

  • Maintain £9000 tuition fee in England
  • Ring-fence apprenticeship budget
  • Abolish employers' National Insurance contributions on earnings up to the upper earnings limit for apprentices under the age of 25
  • A REF style teaching inspectorate linked to funding for universities

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(162 votes. Average rating: 2.22 out of 10)
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Green Party

  • Scrap university tuition fees and cancel student debt
  • Reintroduce block grant funding
  • Reintroduce student grants to support living costs, costing £2.2billion over the next Parliament
  • Consider scrapping fees for academic postgraduate courses

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(207 votes. Average rating: 7.50 out of 10)
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Labour Party

  • Lower tuition fees in England to £6000
  • Protect entire education budget including ‘early years, schools and post-16 education’ so that it rises in line with inflation
  • 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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(175 votes. Average rating: 5.36 out of 10)
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Liberal Democrats

  • Maintain current £9000 tuition fee in England
  • Establish reviews of higher and further education funding
  • Ring-fence education spending for those aged between 2 and 19 years (‘cradle to college’)

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(133 votes. Average rating: 2.53 out of 10)
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Plaid Cymru

  • Provide a subsidy to students resident in Wales who wish to study in Wales

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(95 votes. Average rating: 4.05 out of 10)
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Scottish National Party

  • No tuition fees for Scottish students and supportive of lower fees across UK

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(121 votes. Average rating: 5.49 out of 10)
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UCU analysis

All the main political parties have (by varying degrees) pledged to secure the education budget. The coalition announced proposals to ring-fence the apprenticeship budget but cut non apprenticeship adult education funding by 24% and whilst the Liberal Democrats have pledged to ring fence spending for 2 to 19 year olds neither they or the Conservatives are likely to reverse these cuts.

Labour’s manifesto includes a pledge to ‘protect the entire education budget’ and whilst they say this will include ‘post-16 education and skills’, UCU has called for clarification on whether they will reverse the previous administrations proposed 24% cut to adult education funding.

On higher education funding Labour have recently committed to lowering tuitions fees in England to £6000, funded by pension changes and whilst the Liberal Democrats have said they will establish a review of funding, both they and the Conservatives are currently committed to the £9000 figure. The Green Party has said it will abolish tuition fees, cancel student debt and, in the short term, reintroduce grants to cover living costs. Both SNP and Plaid have proposed policies aimed at students in their respective home nations, namely no fees for Scottish students and subsidies for Welsh students studying in Wales.

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