The Prime Minister is set to admit students in England face one of “most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” as she announces a wide-ranging review of funding for further and higher education.
In a speech on Monday afternoon, Theresa May will say the system of variable tuition fees for university degrees has failed to create the “competitive market” originally envisaged.
Mrs May is expected to challenge the “outdated attitude” towards technical qualifications, saying many graduates with academic degrees end up questioning their value relative to the size of the debt accrued and the high interest rates on repayments.
“We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world,” she will say in a speech in Derbyshire
“All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses.
“Three-year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course.
“The competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged has simply not emerged.”
An independent chair and panel will support the review as it considers all aspects of post-18 education funding, including whether or not maintenance grants to help with living costs should be reintroduced for the poorest students.
It is also expected to consider how career guidance could be improved to give young people clearer information about future earning potential in certain careers, and what qualifications those careers require.
The review is scheduled to return its findings in early 2019.
Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees altogether became one of the key issues for young voters at the last election.
Since then the Government have pledged to freeze the top rate of tuition fees at £9,250, scrapping a proposed increase, but some Conservative MPs want the party to go further.
On Sunday, Education Secretary Damian Hinds defended the role of tuition fees in dividing the cost of university education between the taxpayer and the student, but said variable fees should reflect the value of the degree.
“What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing, so the cost to put on the course, the value it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
However, former education secretary Justine Greening has warned the Government’s review will likely be challenging, given the complexity of defining what constitutes a “beneficial” degree.
Mrs Greening also suggested forcing universities to charge less for degrees considered to offer lower potential earnings could remove the incentive for poorer students to pursue higher-earning careers.
Universities have also cautioned against any move to reduce fees without alternative funding being put in place.
“Future success depends on universities having stable and sustainable funding – which the current system provides,” said Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice chancellor of the University of Liverpool.
“This review is the opportunity to examine the evidence and to make improvements.
“Crucially, the current system could be better understood and feel fairer to students. Injecting new investment to help the poorest students with their living costs and tackling the decline in mature and part-time study must be priorities.”