The Student Funding Panel, established last year by Universities UK, today recommends more student maintenance support, better student understanding of loan terms and a freeze of the repayment threshold.
In the report, which looks at how the student funding system in England could be improved, the panel found that “The current system of student funding in England is broadly fit for purpose, does not require wholesale reform, and needs to be given time to work”.
The panel was set up to analyse the impact of the reforms to funding for undergraduate students in England introduced in 2012–13, identify any major issues, and assess the options for reforming the system in the future. Although it was instigated and supported by Universities UK, the representative body has yet to formally endorse the proposals.
Despite finding the system broadly fit for purpose, the panel still recommends further reform and has a number of proposals. The most eye-catching perhaps is a freezing of the repayment thresholds in the current system.
The panel recommends that key repayment parameters in the system should be frozen for seven years (from 2016 to 2023). They list the advantages of this option as:
- It reduces the estimated RAB charge from around 43% to around 30%.
- It increases the future value of repayments.
- It reduces the future borrowing requirement for government to support the system.
- It adapts the current system to the prevailing labour market conditions.
- It retains the strongly progressive features of the current system.
- It is straightforward to communicate to students, graduates, and other stakeholders, in that it does not require a significant change in policy direction or design.
The report suggests that maintenance support should be improved. Some of the ideas it recommends include:
- Linking changing levels of support to increases in accommodation costs
- Recognising varying costs of living in different parts of the country
- More flexibility for changing circumstances out of students control
- Not basing eligibility for loans and grants solely on parental income
- Increasing the number of loan instalments:
Supporting other recent research and evidence, the panel also found that the decline in part-time students in recent years is likely to have been caused, at least in part, by the various recent reforms to student funding. As a result it calls for a consideration of the restoration of ELQ funding as well as suggesting a raft of measures to help students in part time education and institutions that deliver part time qualifications. Although the report stops short of actually recommending that these should be implemented.
The panel believes that prospective and current student understanding of the system needs to be improved, and the description and communication of the system need to be clarified and simplified.
Finally, the panel believes that loan recovery mechanisms need to be improved and “options for improving student loan collection should be analysed and implemented as a priority”.
The report also includes the results of a student survey which was conducted to help understand how current undergraduate students have been affected by the 2012 reforms.
The results of the survey showed that for the vast majority of students, living costs are a concern, “respondents were more likely to be concerned about meeting their costs of living than tuition fees.” Meeting living costs is of particular concern for those within universities in and around London.
The survey also found that one in three respondents would accept a “small annual increase in tuition fees if their university was faced with a reduction in available resources to sustain its activities.” Around two thirds of students are at least ‘quite concerned’ about their ability to repay the loan but for the majority of students, “The level of tuition fee was not a significant factor in their decision to enter higher education.”
“80% [of students] are aware that their loan repayments will only commence once their earnings exceed £21,000” the report says, but finds that there is an overall lack of understanding the finer details of loans, such as the interest rates.
Satisfaction with university facilities for teaching and learning and various other resources and services, was high according to the survey.
You can download the full report here.