Tories must provide clarity on pledge for extra student places

We need to ensure promises stack up so that those with the ability and aspiration to benefit from higher education will not be left out in the cold this autumn.

Our guest writer is Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students (NUS)

The number of people wishing to fulfil their educational potential by entering higher education and developing the skills that benefit individuals, society and the economy has continued to increase. This year applications to university are up by 23 per cent on last year as more and more people aspire to continue learning, particularly as more people than ever before reap the benefits of a higher education and we move towards economic recovery.

The issue of additional university places has therefore become an increasingly contentious issue and the Conservatives hit the headlines during their party conference last year with their own proposals on how to address it. However, serious questions have now been put over whether their commitment to increase student places by 10,000 by introducing a discount early repayment scheme can be delivered.

At this point in the electoral cycle, it is vital that policies are backed up by fully costed commitments. The Conservatives must urgently clarify whether their promise of 10,000 additional places has been fully costed and would be delivered. Broken promises caused by poor budgeting would have a terrible impact on institutions facing ever tighter budgets and on the opportunities for thousands of people hoping to gain a place at university this autumn. There is a danger that the hopes of those with the ability and aspiration to go to university could be raised only to be dashed later down the line.

The higher education minister David Lammy yesterday described the Conservative proposals as “regressive”, “unworkable”, “expensive and wasteful” and “disingenuous”. Strong stuff indeed. The university think tank Million+ and the NUS Australia where a similar scheme was introduced have also raised concerns and questions over the costings behind the Tories’ proposals.

NUS believes it is vital that additional funded university places are made available to keep pace with demand and we welcome proposals for creative short-term solutions to this growing problem, as long as the numbers add up and we are crystal clear that short-term sticking plasters do not leave long term unfair and unsustainable scars on students, universities or society at large.

Viewing discounted loan repayments as anything more than a temporary solution to these problems would set a dangerous long-term precedent whereby those from more affluent and priveleged backgrounds would enjoy preferential repayment conditions on loan debt. Such proposals, even when fully costed, can only be justified as a short-term fix if they can both genuinely generate additional places and help ensure additional access for students from low-income backgrounds who would otherwise be shut out.

It is in the interests of students, potential students and their families to have the full facts at their disposal about possible solutions to the mounting crisis in student places. The stakes are high and we need answers from political parties on their proposals to ensure promises stack up so that those with the ability and aspiration to benefit from higher education will not be left out in the cold this autumn.

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