A university place for all is the way to abolish tuition fees | Nick Hillman

If higher education had comprehensive coverage like state schools, arguments for taxpayer funding could triumph

England recently hit Tony Blair’s 50% target for the proportion of the population experiencing higher education by the age of 30. Since Blair introduced tuition fees in 1998, the student loan system and the removal of state control over the number of places have provided room for university expansion.

It’s a cause for celebration. And yet, despite decades of growth, the UK continues to send a smaller proportion of young people on to higher education than many other countries. In New Zealand, nine out of 10 people enter tertiary education – and the New Zealand government is in the process of abolishing university fees.

Far more young people want to go to university than make it. When today’s 18-year-olds were 14, 71% of girls said they were likely to go to university while the figure for boys was 63%. But fewer than 40% of them have actually applied. Something goes wrong between these two ages. It could be a lack of careers advice. There is little evidence that fees are a deterrent, as Damian Hinds pointed out last month, but it is clear there’s a demand that is not being met. In fact, there is so much room for growth that we should be preparing for at least 300,000 more students by 2030 – or half a million more, if boys are to catch up with girls.

The last big fee increase in 2012 allowed us to remove the cap on student numbers, providing room for further expansion. It remains the policy of which I am most proud from my time in Whitehall, because people who can thrive at university no longer have the door slammed in their faces because all the places are taken.

In the past few years, Labour has switched its position from supporting high fees to wanting to end them altogether. But abolishing – or even significantly reducing – fees would swiftly be followed by a curtailment in the number of student places. Caps on numbers would return because each student would cost taxpayers much more. So the idea that abolishing fees will increase opportunity is false.

In past years, when higher education was free, only a tiny proportion of the population benefited from it – fewer than 10% of people went on to higher education in the early 1970s – and most people felt the country could therefore afford it. As numbers rose, it became harder to justify this preferential treatment of one part of the population through taxes paid by others.

If we want even more young people to go to university – why not 70-80%, say? – then the arguments for taxpayer funding through the mainstream tax system could become overwhelming once again. That’s why I believe that supporting the current fee system for now could, paradoxically, be the way to abolish it at some point in the near future.

Anyone who wants mass higher education and an end to tuition fees should be patient and keep schtum until higher education has expanded so much it becomes near universal. Around 90% of schoolchildren attend state schools and almost everyone accepts schooling should be free at the point of use. The same goes for the NHS, which is used by around 90% of people. If higher education had more comprehensive coverage, the arguments for mainstream taxpayer funding could triumph once more, as taxpayers would see the clear benefit for all.

Currently, people from better-off areas are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to reach higher education. If we cut fees sharply and pay for it by restricting the number of students, this will merely perpetuate the middle-class capture of our university system.

Abolishing fees imposes huge costs on taxpayers and leads, as night follows day, to strict control of student places.

When only a few people go into higher education the state can cover much of the cost. And when a really high number go, the state might as well cover the cost. For now, while the richest half of the population still take most of the places, it is hard to make a persuasive case for abolishing fees.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. He was a government special adviser, 2010-2013


Nick Hillman

The GuardianTramp

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