When the Conservatives nearly introduced a Graduate Contribution Scheme.

At some point in 2019 the Conservative government will have to conclude their review of post-18 education funding, informed by the panel chaired by Philip Augar. Once the review has concluded, there will be the issue of getting any legislative changes through parliament. This is a very public piece of policy creation; announced by the Prime Minister at a party conference, and still able to command front pages of Sunday newspapers.

What if a Conservative government accepted the need for changes to the way that universities were funded, drew up a policy that would have graduates contribute to the cost, but then had to back down because the parliamentary arithmetic was all wrong, not least because of the problems it was having over Europe. Yes, its 1993.

John Patten was Secretary of State for Education in 1993 and conscious that the newly merged sector was under financial pressure from the growth in student numbers. The government faced a decision: move back from its 1 in 3 participation target or increase funding. A briefing note was prepared for John Major by Nick True, Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit.

You can see – Major has said ‘No’ to renouncing the target (thanks Michael Portillo for that suggestion). The proposal in its place would be to extend the loan scheme to cover the part of the income raised through tuition fees. In the early 1990s a dual funding system existed whereby the new funding councils paid a grant, but the ‘fee’ was still paid on the students’ behalf by the LEA.

The scheme would be controversial – the fee would be £750, graduates would only start to pay back if they were earning 85% of the national average wage. The briefing concludes, presciently :

This is tricky territory, but not indefensible. No doubt Labour or the Liberals could make fine promises to students in 1996/97 election. … They might promise restoration of free tuition, or a reversal of the whole loan regime. Our weak position among the student vote could be further eroded, but its effects are unlikely to run wider – and we have to do something to raise resources to meet our long term objectives.

True, N., 1993 p2 (Original emphasis)

It’s agreed that this can go to the Ed(H) cabinet committee, where it is simultaneously supported in principle but noted that the Whips’ think it is unlikely to command a majority in the House of Commons. By the next month it’s noted that John Patten accepts that the idea is dead, but he has permission to continue with his Education Bill containing provisions for teacher training and students’ unions (both long term projects expected to be popular with the party in the country).

It is not particularly well known that government had formally considered a graduate contribution scheme three years before the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education was established. There were more years of the decline of the unit of resource to go before that. The General Policy on Education files in the PREM19 series of Prime Minister’s papers show the other education priorities competing for attention (alongside Major’s European problems). These included a charter for further and higher education as part of Major’s Citizen’s Charter initiative. However the chief education policy issue was the revised national curriculum with the issue of new vocational courses, which was being ably led by Sir Ron Dearing. Dearing, of course, would go on to propose a graduate contribution scheme.

True, N., 1993 Higher Education Funding – Charging for Tuition
TNA PREM 19/4099

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