I could not agree more. I have the University of Suffolk in in my constituency, whose students have visited Parliament, and I was very happy to receive them. It provides a good opportunity for university students to engage with their elected representatives and understand how Parliament operates.
The £9,250 fee means that those leaving university have an average debt of £45,000. It is not a particularly pernicious form of debt, but it still has interest applied to it. That debt has to be paid over a number of years, often decades. In fact, it is thought that only 25% pay it back in full—the interest and the amount borrowed—while 75% do not. The concern about the level of fees is that it could put off young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from attending university. The Education Committee published a report not long ago on white working-class kids, and found that they were the least likely of any group to be represented in higher education, with only 12% of white boys eligible for free school meals ending up in university. I think the percentage was slightly higher for girls, at around 15% or 16%. That is a point that the Government need to consider.
Repayment does not kick in until someone is earning £28,000, but that can still be difficult for people who are trying to get by. As I saw when I was trying to get a mortgage, it is taken into account by mortgage providers. It does not impact a person’s credit rating, but it does impact their likely success in getting a mortgage. I have sat there and looked at my monthly outgoings and ingoings, and clearly, if a certain amount is going out over a long period, that does not make it any easier to get a mortgage.
There are two slightly separate issues here. There is the question whether, in the medium to long term, tuition fees should be decreased, but there is also the impact of the pandemic and the question whether or not there should be a partial or full reduction for young people who have been impacted by the pandemic over the last 22 months. It is important that we bear in mind how young people and their mental health have been impacted.
We know that university is not just about the academic side of things. It is also about the social side of things. For many young people, the experience of going to university is transformative in terms of their outlook, personal development and access to university societies and everything else. I was fortunate when I went to university. The first year enabled me to get used to living in a large city, away from my family. Of course, the first year is when students make friends, and they are often the people they live with in their second and third years. I feel great sympathy for young people who have had that opportunity taken away from them.
I have also on occasion been quite critical of some universities, lecturers and university unions that in my view have not always done everything they can to get back to proper, in-person teaching. My understanding is that, at the start of this term, only four out of the top 27 universities had actually gone back fully to in-person teaching. I question whether that is appropriate, and I also question whether now is the time to be talking about strikes, when university students have already had their education impacted so much. I appreciate that often it is a hybrid approach, whereby seminars and tuition are done in person while lectures are done online, but I also talk to many university students who would really appreciate in-person lectures because the virtual ones are no substitute for accessing lectures given by experienced academics. It is not quite the same level of tuition as they were getting before the pandemic. In fact, a Times survey of students who started university before the pandemic showed that 60% thought that their education had been either severely or moderately impacted during the pandemic. I think that many students share that view. I understand that some universities have made arrangements for partial reductions, but I am not sure how significant that is and, of course, the majority of universities have not done that.
I have some concerns about whether decreasing tuition fees from £9,250 to £3,000 would be the right thing to do in the long term. As I said earlier in my speech, 75% end up not paying back their debts in full. Currently the Government lend £17 billion in loans. In March 2021, I believe that the outstanding amount was £141 billion, which is a significant amount of money. If we decrease the £9,250 to £3,000, who would fund that? Would it be the taxpayer? Ultimately, I think that is what we would be looking at: more taxpayer subsidy for university education.