Theresa May has thrown down the gauntlet to the Tory leadership candidates to slash tuition fees and reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students.
In a speech in London, the prime minister acknowledged she no longer had power to implement the policy as she was leaving office.
However, she put pressure on her successor to reduce the burden of debt on young people, as she believed the system was not working for many students and their families.
“I’ve spoken to parents and grandparents forced to scrimp and save to fund their children and grandchildren through university,” she said. “And I’ve seen how young graduates starting out in their adult lives feel weighed down by the burden of student debt.”
Her intervention is likely to make tuition fees and maintenance grants a major issue in the Conservative leadership contest, with candidates pressed for their views on what the party should do to address student anger about the high costs of their degrees.
May, who will leave No 10 at the end of July, criticised David Cameron’s policies of scrapping maintenance grants and raising tuition fees, although she did not do anything about reversing these in her 2017 manifesto. Jeremy Corbyn won over young people in huge numbers at the last election partly because of his policy of scrapping tuition fees.
May said she had come to the view that the system needed an overhaul after a report by Philip Augar, a former equities broker, into post-18 education and funding.
The report also recommended a shift in funding from universities to further education (FE) and vocational training. Universities would lose income for “low value” courses, while their graduates would be making higher student loan repayments until the brink of their retirement.
At the launch of the report, May said: “My view is very clear: removing maintenance grants from the least well-off students has not worked, and I believe it is time to bring them back.”
The report was commissioned by May to look at high student debt and tuition fees after a pledge she gave to the Conservative party conference in 2017. But its publication was delayed multiple times, overshadowed by the Brexit negotiations and technical issues.
Among the report’s proposals are:
• Cutting undergraduate tuition fees to £7,500.
• Extending student loan repayments from 30 to 40 years.
• A single, lifelong learning loan allowance for all adults.
• Maintenance loans for students taking sub-degree qualifications.
• Rebranding student loans as “student contributions”.
• Funding increase for further education colleges and vocational training.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, cast doubt on whether the report will be implemented, saying it “does nothing to address the burning injustices facing our education system”.
She said: “With no formal government response, no extra funding and no guarantee that the recommendations will be implemented by her successor, the Augar review epitomises May’s legacy as prime minister and this shambolic Tory government; all talk, empty promises and very little action.”
Shakira Martin, the president of the National Union of Students, said: “This announcement is too little too late, given that Theresa May’s legacy in higher education will always be the deportation of thousands of our international student friends and colleagues.”
The report called for greater government intervention in the funding and types of courses offered by universities, while its proposal for undergraduate tuition fees in England to be cut from £9,250 to £7,500 a year would probably mean reduced income for humanities and social science departments.
It said: “Some students are charged too much for their degrees and the substantial taxpayer subsidy could be better directed … to courses which cost more to deliver and offer better value to students and taxpayers.”
The report also recommended the government could impose number controls and a minimum entry threshold for degree courses with poor student retention and graduate employment records.
University leaders were quick to push back against the funding proposals, with some fearing it would also affect universities in Scotland and Wales.
Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of the Universities UK lobby group, said: “On the face of it, the fee-level recommendations may look good for students, but unless the government gives a cast-iron guarantee on full replacement funding, it could prove to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”