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£6k, 70 per cent

Based on current predictions of the outcome of the next election, universities should be preparing for a lowering in the fees cap, argues William Cullerne Bown.

The next election is now barely two years away and that means that the parties’ manifestos are already beginning to take shape. You will see nothing written down, and little in speeches. But behind the scenes the policy framework is forming. By this time next year, the main architecture will be in place for all the parties.

For policy on tuition fees, the process is even more advanced. The seismic shifts in both policy and voting intention that have flowed from Nick Clegg’s decision to break the Lib Dems’ pledge not to raise fees have led to a substantially clearer picture than is normal at this point in the cycle.

The Conservatives are the easiest to deal with. They are committed to the broad thrust of current higher education policy. A Conservative government will mean more of the same, though there remain many important details to resolve—not least whether the possibility of a rise in the fees cap remains open by polling day.

Labour’s position is, if anything, even clearer. Ed Miliband has already made cutting tuition fees his first contract with the electorate. The commitment made in his 2011 conference speech was hedged around with caveats, but its electoral seriousness should not be doubted.

The Labour chief’s strong lead in the polls is largely attributable to the leftish half of Lib Dem voters that turned away from Clegg during the tuition fees debacle. That constituency must be nurtured. So must the more general swathe of voters who threw up their hands at fees of £9,000. This all means that Miliband is highly unlikely to go back on his promise to cut the cap to £6,000.

The Lib Dems are the hardest to read. Left to their own devices, Clegg and Vince Cable could make an intellectual case for the current policy. But the grass roots and some MPs have other ideas, and there have been reports that they, too, are agitating for a cap at £6k. There is also the electoral problem of the large number of student voters in many Lib Dem seats.

However, the eventual contents of the Lib Dems’ manifesto is less important than their willingness to support the Labour or Conservative policies, either in coalition or in votes orchestrated by a minority government. In particular, given their long courting of the student vote, it is hard to see them siding against any proposal that offers students a better deal. And that means that universities can expect the cap in tuition fees to come down to £6k if there is a Labour majority, a Labour minority or a Lab-Lib coalition.

Based on the odds currently offered by bookmakers Paddy Power, the—admittedly volatile—chance of one of those three scenarios coming to pass is about 70 per cent. Universities need to spend a lot more time thinking about the consequences of such a policy.

Cutting fees to £6k can only be achieved by providing universities with an increase in core funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But that does not mean that a rise in the block grant will match the loss of fee income, at least not for all universities.

At this point, some vice-chancellors may feel like going on the attack. We are in an age of austerity—the increase in departmental spending entailed in such a policy would be unaffordable, they may want to argue.

Don’t waste your breath. Miliband’s politics will trump all arguments. Besides, not only will the downward pressure on inflation caused by lower fees significantly reduce government spending in other departments, but the additional departmental spending can be set against the expected future losses on student loans.

Better to think of ways in which Labour’s emerging policy might be improved. My goal would be more autonomy. For example, is the world now ready for something like the soft cap—with universities penalised for charging above £6k—proposed by John Browne such a long, long time ago?

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William Cullerne Bown will be speaking at After the Election: Alternatives in higher education policy, an event organised by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, at the Royal Society in London on 20 March.