4 September 2017

How to defuse the student debt time bomb

By Richard Tice

Timebomb: How the university cartel is failing Britain’s students was triggered by the concerns expressed by numerous friends who are parents of university students. Their complaint was simple. Their children are rarely at the university, and when they are there, they are taught for so little time that the whole experience feels like very poor value for the money involved. This was quickly confirmed by their sons and daughters who told a series of troubling anecdotes.

I decided to investigate the truth behind these stories and what I found has shocked me. A powerful university cartel is interwoven with parts of the establishment and cares little about its students, who many academics view as an inconvenience. The universities are just focused on the money.

With students in England and Wales the most indebted in the world on graduation, accruing average debts of £50,000, these are not small amounts of money at stake. For such an eye-watering amount of money, students currently receive just 11 hours of teaching contact time a week and are engaged in academic study for only 23 weeks a year.

The 2017 general election brought the issue of student costs to the foreground. After paying so much for such a small return, it is no surprise that there are unprecedented levels of student dissatisfaction towards the quantity and quality of current teaching relative to the huge cost.

YouGov polling of current students at English universities for Timebomb found that, when asked to rate the overall value for money of their university on a scale of one to ten, fewer than three in ten were prepared to give a score of more than seven.

As one student put it to us, they are paying “a lot of money for some PowerPoint slides”.

It is not just students who are getting a raw deal from the current setup, parents and taxpayers are also saddled with considerable liabilities from our currently failing system. By the 2040s, accumulated debts are forecast to reach £1 trillion, representing a huge liability for future taxpayers, not helped by consecutive governments choosing to kick the student debt can down the road for future generations to deal with.

Statistics such as these are shocking enough without the knowledge that students, parents and taxpayers are being exploited by a self-serving cartel of universities, which resists reforms and is protected by some 200 Peers with university ties in the House of Lords. They have all jumped at once to impose the maximum level of tuition fees, regardless of their institutions’ performance, while freezing out competition from innovative private sector rivals.

Amongst the biggest beneficiaries of the consecutive hikes in fees are, instead of students, vice-chancellors. Individual horror stories of salaries range from the huge £450,000 taken home by the vice-chancellor of Bath University to the extraordinary £222,000 pay packet of the vice-chancellor of Bolton University, one of the poorest performing institutions in the country.

The good news is that there are some relatively clear solutions that can improve choice, value for money for students, their parents and the taxpayer, centred around the widespread expansion of two-year degrees.

YouGov’s polling demonstrates that there would be significant demand for this option, finding that just under half of students surveyed would consider a two-year degree if one was offered.

In order to crack the university cartel, the Government needs to promote two-year degrees as a real, credible alternative to three-year degrees with a zeal comparable to the campaign to expand apprenticeships.

With a more intensive academic experience and a reduction in debt on graduation of up to £20,000 per student, the option of a two-year degree would be an important route back to raising satisfaction levels.

The added bonus of more two-year degrees would be to help the housing crisis by freeing up as many as 100,000 rooms in key UK towns and cities, equivalent to 60 per cent of the annual supply of new-build homes.

In writing this report, I have aimed to identify the concerns of students, parents and taxpayers alike. Universities offering two-year degrees in serious numbers would address these concerns – reducing student debt, enhancing choice and increase pressured housing stocks, thus defusing the time bomb of debt and dissatisfaction that hangs over us all.

Richard Tice is a businessman, political campaigner and co-author of Timebomb: How the university cartel is failing Britain’s students’